Spirits are lifting as spring weather approaches, promising warm days filled with nodding flowers, floating butterflies and leafed-out trees.
If we could trade places with a bird, however, we’d discover a very different view of this preseason. Instead of this being a good time in the bird world, it’s a very lean season filled with scarcity and hunger. Birds now are spending their days scrambling in search of scarce food, heading into night roosts having consumed barely enough calories to make it through until morning.
Overwintering birds spent the past six months scouring the neighborhood for seeds, fruit or insects so intensively that there’s very little left. For example, the rain gardens in my neighborhood are rife with seed-bearing plants, but the goldfinches and house finches had plucked all the seeds from the monarda, goldenrod and coneflower heads by mid-February.
The local chickadees seldom stop at our big maple on their daily foraging route to probe its bark crevices for spider eggs and insect larvae — they know these are pretty much picked clean.
And the robins that swirled from place to place during the winter have consumed all the crabapples and winterberries and now have turned to low-nutrition fruits like those on staghorn sumac.
Mother Nature’s cupboard is almost bare but birds still need to eat just as frequently, to ward off the cold and begin the high-energy tasks of courtship and holding a territory. New crops of seed, fruit and insects won’t be available for months.
What’s a bird to do?
This is the time of year when our landscapes can help make a difference for birds on good days and bad, increasing the chances they’ll be around to greet the spring.
Leave the leaves
If you didn’t rake up all the leaves that fell last autumn, or used piles of them as mulch around plants and trees, give yourself a pat on the back, because this really helps birds. Those leaves hold an abundance of insect eggs and larvae, and hibernating adult insects, as well as any seeds that fell last fall, a smorgasbord for ground feeders. Watch out the window as lingering juncos do their hop-skip dance, scattering leaves to reveal a treat, and cardinals scratch at the soil for morsels, too.
(Note to gardeners: Next fall, leave as many leaves on the ground as you can to create a refuge for tasty insects. I used to ask my husband to shred all our leaves, but later realized we were shredding our yard’s springtime insect crop. The insects won’t take over in a balanced garden, trust me on this.)
If your back yard already features a bird feeder or two, consider adding another one (or two), filled with a different type of food (there are sunflower seed feeders, feeders for thistle, peanuts or suet, general feeders, also tray feeders, covered feeders, etc.). Refill feeders often so visitors don’t go hungry.
Some birds, like robins, don’t have a seed-cracking beak or gizzards and will relish access to rehydrated dried fruit. You might soak raisins, craisins and/or currents until soft, then place these outdoors in a pie tin, along with finely chopped apples. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, cardinals and bluebirds will relish these treats, as well. (Squirrels will be attracted, too, so think carefully about placement.)
Many of us dread seeing the first yellow heads of dandelions in the lawn, but this is one of the few sources of nectar for emerging bumblebees. We need wild bees to pollinate the plants that attract the insects that feed the birds. Dandelions also attract small insects that nourish early migrants, like warblers. (Repeat 10 times: “Dandelions are good!”)
Look at your landscape with a bird’s eyes — are there places to shelter from the wind and cold? Are feeders too exposed, making hunting easy for predators like hawks and cats? Evergreen shrubs and trees are the bus shelters of the bird world, and brush piles can be refuges, too. When a Cooper’s hawk flies over, the evergreens will fill up with frightened songbirds. If you want to be popular with back-yard birds, plant evergreens.
Any day now, our winter birds are going to begin sharing our landscapes and treescapes with the flood of migratory birds now on their way northward. You can help make sure they’re in peak condition for facing the demands of carving out a territory and finding a mate this spring.
St. Paul resident Val Cunningham, who volunteers with the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.