Around our house, the first signs of spring used to signal two things: It was finally time to start poking around in the garden, and the Orioles' Opening Day couldn't be far away.
But that was back when we were people, not parents.
Now the first daffodil serves as harbinger for the season my husband and our 2-year-old daughter have been anticipating for months:
It's zoo time again.
They'll go once a week, usually without fail, once the weather breaks. Like most kids, she's fascinated by animals, and adults find it easy to share and nurture that interest.
But if you can't make it to the zoo, check out a book.
* ''Zoo Clues: Making the Most of Your Visit to the Zoo,'' by Sheldon L. Gerstenfeld, V.M.D., illustrated by Eldon C. Doty (Viking, $13.95, ages 8-12) is great fun for adults as well as kids. It's packed with facts that are presented as ''quick hits,'' so it doesn't read like some boring textbook.
For example, anteaters don't have teeth -- the strong muscles in their stomachs grind up their food. Rhinos are so nearsighted, they can't see objects more than 15 feet away (though they make up for that with their great sense of hearing and smell). And when an elephant has a fever, the zoo veterinarian prescribes 100 aspirins, three times a day.
Dr. Gerstenfeld, a vet who credits the staff of the Philadelphia Zoo in his acknowledgments, crams in stats on 28 of the most familiar reptiles, birds, mammals and primates. I had no idea owls lived to be 20 years old, or that armadillos are great swimmers who can hold their breath for up to 10 minutes. This isn't meant to be an encyclopedic guide. Instead, the fun tidbits of information, complemented by cartoon-like sketches, will whet the appetite for more.
* On the encyclopedic side, there's the ''Macmillan Animal Encyclopedia for Children,'' by Roger Few (Macmillan, $16.95, ages 7 and up). Mr. Few, a geographer and ecologist, divides the world into nine habitats: ice caps and tundra, rivers and lakes, coniferous forests, woodlands, grasslands, deserts, tropical forests, mountains and oceans.
He introduces each habitat with a huge photograph (the book measures 9 by 11 1/4 inches and is 120 pages long) and a map showing where all of the world's tropical forests, for example, are located. The next 11 pages have entries on some of the many animals from that habitat. The full-color illustrations are superb, but the information on each animal is sketchy and too brief.
The organization makes it tough to find a particular animal without the index -- kids working on a school report would find that tiresome -- and the one-page glossary is skimpy. This book is fine for browsing, but it doesn't qualify as a reference work.
* Two books hit the mark for toddlers. ''The Petting Zoo,'' created by Jack Hanna, art by Neil Brennan (Doubleday, $10, ages 6 months -- 2 1/2 years) takes a ''Pat the Bunny'' approach. Kids get to feel the llama's woolly fur, the tiger's scratchy tongue and the giraffe's velvety horns. Mr. Hanna, the director of the Columbus Zoo, is best known for his guest spots on late-night talk shows. This book isn't scintillating, but it's a real hit with 18-month-olds. And it's fairly indestructible (at $10, it ought to be).
''Who Sees You?: At the Zoo,'' by Carla Dijs (Grosset & Dunlap, $3.95, ages 6 months -- 2 years) was one of our daughter's early favorites. Dijs' simple pop-ups are some of the best around -- check out ''Are You My Mommy?'' and ''Are You My Daddy?'' -- and kids love to predict which animal is going to leap out of the next page.
* Parents who feel uneasy about animals in captivity, but who support wildlife conservation, should read ''Tigress,'' by Helen Cowcher (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14.95, ages 4-8).
Set in India, it's the dramatic story of a tigress who leads her cubs away from the wildlife sanctuary because a herdsman's flock of goats is too enticing to ignore. The tigress kills a young bullock, and then a stray camel.
Some of the worried herdsmen want to poison the camel meat before the tigress returns. But the sanctuary ranger intervenes, and together they come up with a plan to scare the tigress and her cubs back to the safety of the sanctuary.
Cowcher's first two books, ''Rain Forest'' and ''Antarctica,'' were lauded for their content and illustrations. ''Tigress'' received the Parent's Choice 1991 award for illustration and is on the 1991 list of the New York Public Library's 100 Titles for Reading and Sharing.