By Greg Markley
In summer 1970, Canadian singer Anne Murray had a popular song called “Snowbird.” The first stanza focuses on the dark-eyed Junco, called a snowbird because of its abrupt appearance at feeding stations in colder weather. It belongs to the sparrow family.
Murray is now age 74 and still performs her standards such as “Danny’s song,” “You needed me.
and “Could I have this dance?”
Her breakthrough Top 10 song begins: “Beneath this snowy mantle cold and clean, The unborn grass lies waiting, For its coat to turn to green, The snowbird sings the song he always sings.” These birds are very nice, but my subjects today are human Snowbirds: Northerners who come to the South to avoid winter’s rage at home.
In 2017, Alabama had 26.6 million visitors, 21% more than in 2008, which is when use of the very successful “Sweet Home Alabama” tagline began. Money spent by visitors in the state hit $14.3 billion in 2017, up 7.5% from 2016 and almost 50% more than 2008.
This is according to Business Alabama. Spending totals were not available detailing how much of that tourist money comes from “Snowbirds” in Alabama. But I contend that plenty does!
“Alabamians make the best neighbors, and we are always proud to welcome visitors, whether they are here for a quick visit or maybe even a little longer like our friends from colder climates,” Gov. Kay Ivey emphasized. “We are always ready to offer a warm southern welcome to folks wanting to make Alabama their new, permanent home. After all, we are ‘Sweet Home Alabama.’”
Two cartoons tell a lot about “Snowbirds” in a fun way. The first, by John O’Brien, has people leaving a plane and handing their coats to a man in a booth. Caption: Winter Coat Check at a Tropical Destination’s Airport. The second, by Ed Fischer, shows people at a bus stop in a snowstorm. A woman says to another: “Oh, sure, you could move to Arizona but you wouldn’t have our wonderful change of seasons.”
Aaron Gresham, executive creative director at Birmingham’s BIG Communications, stated in a 2018 interview that the state has much to be proud of but not enough outsiders know that. “Alabama has been cast as an underdog in the national media, and we get a lot of attention over negative news,” he told Business Alabama. “The truth is we are not what you may think.
We are smart, innovative and hard working.”
I suggest you locate a color photo of the birds that share the nickname with humans. This is a small bird with dark hood covering his head and chest, with a greyish back and a white belly.
The term “snowbird” has been around for 97 years. It originally referred to seasonal workers who moved south for the winter.
In Texas, Snowbirds have the name “Winter Texans.” In similar places, Snowbirds have the challenge of keeping up care for their primary homes. They may arrange for a family member or trusted neighbor to frequently check their home. In Southern host states, Snowbirds favorably impact state economies.
Orange Beach, Alabama was chosen as one of the 20 Best Places for Snowbirds in 2017, by travel website Expedia. That’s no surprise! The average high temperature is 61 degrees F. in November, and comfortable for many months after. Gulf Shores, AL and Orange Beach have much-heralded beaches and activities.
Our neighbors to the north, the Canadians, have visited the United States at a high rate during the last 10 years. Visits to include the winter rush by Snowbirds, increased 3% between 2012 and 2013. Canadians in those years actually made 5,245,000 trips to our country, dwarfing the 2,111,000 trips within Canada in December 2014. Florida is consistently found to be Canadians’ most popular destination for longer visits. Also, Canada’s annual spending in California was $3.5 billion, and in Arizona it was nearing $1 billion.
We end with more on Anne Murray’s classic 1970 song “Snowbird.” The song had a nice beat, but for those who never heard it, the lyrics were a downer. In the last stanza, Murray sung “Take the snow back with you, Where it came from on that day, The one I love forever is untrue,
If I could you know I would, Fly away with you.”
Fifty years after this hit song’s debut, people are not coming here after “flying away from an untrue love.” They are Snowbirds happily flying to the blue glistening water of the Alabama Gulf Coast for new friendships and memories.
Greg Markley has lived in Lee County for 18 of the last 23 years. An award-winning journalist, he has master’s degrees in education and history. He has taught as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama.