Tracking the Snowbirds: Seasonal Migration from Canada to the U.S.A. and Mexico

Article excerpt

 
Spread your tiny wings and fly away 
And take the snow back with you 
Where it came from on that day 

So, little snowbird, take me with you when you go.

To that land of gentle breezes where the peaceful waters flow

--Gene MacClellan, "Snowbird," sung by Anne Murray

Each fall, millions of geese, ducks, hawks, and cranes start a long migration from northern North America, heading for warmer locations in the South. A few months later, large numbers of human migrants from Canada and from the northern tier of American states prepare for their escape from the rigors of snow shoveling, sub-zero temperatures, and dark winter nights. Packing their golf clubs, swimming trunks, and suntan oil, they travel by car, recreational vehicle, and airplane to the southern United States and Mexico. These warmth-seeking seasonal migrants are often called "snowbirds." It is an odd term, since there is no such bird; despite the title of Anne Murray's famous song, the snowbird, ornithologically speaking, does not exist, though snow geese and snow buntings do migrate, and snowy owls move south to find food in the winter. Like many northerners' dream of winter and sun, the snowbird is a fantasy. But the seasonal mass movement of population from north to south is real enough, and is a phenomenon o f profound social, economic, and political importance.

Canadians have mixed reactions to the snowbird phenomenon. When trapped in a long Canadian winter, the prospect of heading south for a month or more seems attractive to all but the most determined nationalist. At the same time, the annual migration sparks some jealousy among those left behind to shovel the snow, thaw out the cars, and tolerate the sub-zero temperatures. Montreal Gazette columnist Andy Nulman captured, tongue-in-cheek, the downside of the snowbird migrations: "It's mid-November. Listen closely. It's starting once again. That distinct sucking sound you hear is the whoosh of hundreds of thousands of Canadians--"snowbirds" they's called--making their annual southward migration for the winter... While we're stuck here pulling on woolies and putting on snow tires to navigate sand-strewn sidewalks and salted roads, snowbirds are squeezing spare tires into Speedos to navigate sandy beaches and saltwater waves down south. More than mere objects of ridicule, they's become extreme Enemies of the State." '

Snowbird Numbers and Destinations

Like their avian counterparts, the human migrants tend to return seasonally to a small number of familiar locations: south Florida, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, Phoenix and Tucson, the California desert, Baja California, and west-central Mexico. Subgroups, particularly from Canada, flock together: Ontario residents on the West Coast of Florida, Quebecois between Palm Beach and Ft. Lauderdale, Saskatchewan residents in Texas and Arizona. Although some rent apartments or purchase time-share units in resort condos, many concentrate in trailer parks or even in vast, quasi-legal temporary recreational vehicle settlements, like the one that springs up yearly near the Salton Sea in the Southern California desert. Quartzsite, Arizona, a small community of slightly over 2,100 people in the summertime, explodes to over a million in January, according to town authorities. This "community," larger than Phoenix, consists of block after block of mobile home parking lots, filled from November to March by snowbirds fleein g the ice, snow, and cold weather of the North. (2) Migration on this scale--and Quartzsite is only one of the towns swarmed by snowbirds--is unprecedented in North American history.

The historic southward migration to the United States has expanded further south in recent years. Thousands of Canadians, joining an even larger number of Americans, have set their sights on Mexico, where the cost of spending the winter is reputedly cheaper than in the U. …