Q: What birds are traditional signs of spring?
The most recognized harbinger of spring is the swallow. The phrase prvá lastovička ("the first swallow") can be used figuratively in the sense of a "first occurrence," "first sgin," or "trailblazer." But other birds, too, were seen as signs of spring in the past. Spring as a growing season starts in much of Slovakia in April, the weather becomes warm by May-June. About 30 million birds arrive in Slovakia from their winter grounds, mostly in Africa, fewer in Asia, each spring, some continue farther north later. Slovakia's swallows spend the winter in central and southern Africa, their return journey takes about five weeks.
Signs of spring
A historical saying had swallows return to Slovakia on Georgemas (24 April), but they usually arrive sooner, the earliest records are from the second week of March. Another saying, noted in the 1860s, spoke of their arrival on 25 March ("the Virgin Mary releases swallows from her apron" on the Annunciation). When girls saw the first swallow, they would run to wash their faces in the stream in order to be pretty, sprightly, and healthy.
The only related saying common among the Slovaks today is the Pan-European "one swallow does not make a summer" (or, occasionally, spring) dating back to Ancient Greece, and its less frequent reversed version "with one swallow missing, summer will still come," first written down in a novel by Ján Kalinčiak in 1852.
In the past, people also noted and saw as a sign of spring the arrival of other birds, including skylarks (škovránok) and lapwings (cibík), both among the first birds to return, and the sight of migrating geese. In some places the locals believed that spring was heralded by bathing crows (vrana) or by nightingales (slávik) once they would sing vigorously throughout the night. Vocal storks (bocian) or cuckoos (kukučka) were thought to forecast a warm spring. Among the last birds to return is north-central Slovakia's rosefinch (hýľ) from South Asia.
Another ancient, widely recognized marker of spring was the honeybee (včela) – the queen when it began to be active in the hive or the worker bees when they started flying out of it.
The swallows leave Slovakia in September and October. A folk saying recorded in the 1860s saw their departure as a sign of the end of Indian summer ("old wives' summer" in Slovak, historically called "St. Martin's summer" in England). The regarded novelist and doctor Martin Kukučín, wrote in a short story in the 1880s that while the swallow would "treacherously abandon its nest" when chilly, damp fall winds began to blow in the country, that was the time for some Slovaks, brought up to be falcons rather than doves by the granite mountains, to return to their home nests from migrant jobs.