It starts with a rustle of wings. A flash or two of exotic license plates. Next thing you know, the trailer parks are full and you can’t get a table at Mimi’s without a flamethrower.
The first wave of snowbirds has arrived, with three more waves winging our way in the coming months. Keep in mind: a) Snowbirds bring a lot of money to the Valley of the Sun; b) They’re quite nice as individuals; c) The money thing again. Instead of getting our own feathers up, let’s embrace this feathered flock for its quirky diversity. And remember: Most of us are former snowbirds who just forgot the way home.
Canadian Snowbird (epops niveus gotmyvisas)
Description: Gray or white crown feathers; plaid belly and wing feathers; sometimes spotted with red maple leaf or hockey team logos. Migration: October to December. Or when it gets cold up there, which is . . . well, not July.
Nesting: Trailers, pull-throughs, RV parks. Often socialize together or with Minnesota or Michigan subspecies, as part of the "Brotherhood of Bitter Cold."
Behavior/Song: Before you go mocking their distinctive calls ("eh?" / "oot and aboot"), remember these birds can buy more prescription drugs than you can ever dream of.
Notes: An estimated 300,000 Canadians migrate to the United States each year. About 30,000 of them head this way, and they constitute about 15 percent to 20 percent of the local snowbird population. "Canadians are more cognizant of the calendar," says Happel, "because they can lose their health care benefits if they’re out of the country for more than six months." The size of this flock also fluctuates with the strength of the Canadian dollar. "That slowed ’em down a bit a few years ago," he says. "But it’s doing pretty well against the (U.S.) dollar right now."
Plains States Snowbird (epops niveus toto)
Description: Gray and white crown; male features a soft plaid with denim-colored anterior and tail markings; females favor a modest sensible pattern, like gingham. Certain subspecies can sport enormous eyewear or distinctive John Deere caps.
Migration: Northern habitat includes Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma; southern migration begins in October, concludes around Easter.
Nesting: Trailer courts, RV parks, extended-stay hotels; perches at churches and certain smorgasbords.
Behavior/Song: This is the most courteous of snowbirds, whose distinctive "after you" call can be heard at church doors and in restaurant lobbies across the E.V. Tolerant and obliging, they will nonetheless set no land speed records in the left-hand lane.
Notes: ASU economics professor Steve Happel says that, as a species, snowbirds arrive in four separate waves. "We’ll get the first wave in October," he says. "The second wave comes after Thanksgiving, or right after the first major snowstorm back home. Weather is a prime factor. Quite a few of them come down and stay for Christmas." But timing suggests that the larger flock of snowbirds, including the Plains States species, prefer to holiday in their northern habitat, taking wing once that last gift is opened. "The biggest wave we see is just after the first of the year."
Boomer Snowbird (epops niveus welltudo)
Description: Gray/white crown feathers often cloaked by Grecian Formula and/or denial; chest and flanks tastefully coordinated; female features flecks of gold around the throat.
Migration: This subspecies migrates from every Northern location, usually in much nicer vehicles.
Nesting: Second homes, resort hotels, golf-course condos and high-end RVs.
Behavior/Song: Newer subspecies migrates bigger and better, traveling more frequently in-state and living more expensively where they perch. Their omnipresent call ("check, please") is music to local merchants.
Notes: The emergent (Baby) Boomer Snowbird is expected to boost the flock and completely redefine it over the next 10 years. "They have much more disposable cash, and they’re looking for an upscale lifestyle," says Happel. "They’re more independent; more likely to buy 30- or 40-foot motor coaches or live in second homes along golf courses." The days of RV-park square dances may be in decline as this new subspecies emerges. "They want meaningful personal experiences," he says. "And they’re ready to pay for them."
Midwestern Snowbird (epops niveus letsplaytu)
Description: Gray/white crown; plaid wings with a dull-colored breast; sprouts vibrant baby blue during March "preening period"
Migration: Plucky, boisterous flock can leave their Illinois, Iowa and Minnesota perches as early as the first frost, but most migrate during spring training period of February and March. Nesting: RV and trailer courts; tourist and extended-stay motels; sports bars; fond of perching at Mesa’s Fitch Park and migrating through Cactus League stadiums in the wake of the Chicago Cubs.
Behavior/Song: Aggressive strutting behavior and blue plumage usually fade by the All-Star break. Distinctive seasonal cries ("Dis is the ye-ah"/ "Gaaad, it’s haaaat!") are legendary.
Notes: Spring training draws the final wave of ’birds from the Midwest. These are led by the Cub-based snowbirds, who are beloved for their quirky behaviors and generous spending habits. By perching at local restaurants, and nesting in local trailer parks, RV courts and extended-stay hotels, snowbirds of every stripe pollinate the desert with a desperately needed crop called cash. ASU’s Center for Business Research estimated that snowbirds pumped an estimated $600 million into the Valley of the Sun in 2003. Statewide, the economic impact of elderly seasonal households was "at least $1 billion" for the same period.