Second Summer

November 14, 2020

These first few weeks of November have been idyllic here in Michigan in terms of weather. Even though we’ve had our first sprinkling of snow and a few nights of below freezing temperatures, most of our days have been blissfully sunny and unseasonably warm!

An idyllic ‘second summer’ setting at the Kalamazoo Nature Center
Canada Goose coming in for a landing at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary

Growing up, we called this spate of pleasant November weather Indian Summer, but in writing this piece, I wondered where that term actually came from and was it even politically correct to say ‘Indian Summer’ anymore. This required some research and what I found was that both the origin of the term and the political correctness of it, depended on who you asked!

Whiffling Geese
“Whiffling is a term used in ornithology to describe the behavior whereby a bird rapidly descends with a zig-zagging, side-slipping motion. Sometimes to whiffle, a bird flies briefly with its body turned upside down, but with its neck and head twisted 180 degrees around in a normal position. The aerodynamics which usually give a bird lift during flying are thereby inverted and the bird briefly plummets toward the ground before this is quickly reversed and the bird adopts a normal flying orientation. This erratic motion resembles a falling leaf, and is used to avoid avian predators or may be used by geese to avoid a long, slow descent over an area where wildfowling is practiced.”

No one really knows how “Indian summer” came to describe such periods of unseasonably warm weather. One theory suggests that early American settlers mistook the sight of sun rays through the hazy autumn air for Native American campfires, resulting in the name “Indian summer.” Others speculate that Native Americans recognized this weather pattern and used the opportunity to gather additional food for the winter.

Dark-eyed Junco
Eastern Bluebird

Some believe the term was coined by European settlers who observed Indigenous people hunting during hot fall days. More derogatory theories say it refers to a summer that is not on time or one that is phony or fake.

Snow Goose, Dark Morph –there were three snow geese migrating through our area, two of the dark morph and one white morph. All three landed on the pond at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary much to my delight!

A beautiful Mallard/Muscovy Duck Hybrid at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, Augusta, Michigan

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, the most likely explanation can be traced to settlers in New England who welcomed cold wintry weather because they could leave their stockades unarmed. They feared warmer weather would invite attacks from the Indians, and they coined the expression “Indian summer” to describe the weather conditions that might make them more vulnerable.

Northern Pintail Duck, Blandford Nature Center, Grand Rapids, Michigan– the Northern Pintails are migrating through Michigan right now and I was lucky to find this one. Even though they are apparently plentiful, I’ve never seen one before.

San Francisco State University American Indian Studies Professor Andrew Jolivette,  said “Using the term Indian summer might seem innocuous, but it’s really part of a larger body of normalized euphemisms that keep Indians tied to nature and an imagined past in the minds of most Americans.”

Sharp-shinned Hawk (juvenile) — a first for me!

To be on the safe side, maybe it’s time for us to find a new name.  In many European countries, a November warm spell is called St. Martin’s summer. In Germany, the Netherlands and Eastern Europe, warm autumn streaks are called old wives’ summer (which might also be politically incorrect!) Spain has a quince summer, (because it’s around this time of year that quince finishes its ripening), and Sweden has a “badger summer” (when badgers have one last chance to replenish their stocks for the winter).

Female Belted Kingfisher at the Blandford Nature Center, Grand Rapids, Michigan

For me, though, I’m going to stick with an English term I found along the way that is definitely innocuous and was put into use long before Indian Summer even came into vogue: Second Summer.

American Robin on a sunny fall day that seemed like summer!

4 thoughts on “Second Summer

    1. One of the best places to go is the Nature Center at Kensington Metropark in Milford. If you take bird seed with you, and hold your hand out with it, you will have all kinds of birds land your hand to eat! They expect it from visitors and it seems magical!

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