It’s already the middle of March. While birds don’t follow calendars, they are punctual, and thanks to their boundless energies, the grand spectacle of spring migration is already upon us.
The pace will quicken in April and early May as many of our favorite summer birds, including species ranging from hummingbirds and warblers to swifts and swallows, wing their way back to the region. A few will stay, pair with a mate and begin the nesting season in earnest while others will continue toward destinations farther north. For fellow bird enthusiasts, now is the time to conduct some spring tasks to make our feathered friends feel more welcome when they do return.
Many birds are cavity-nesting species, which means they utilize natural nooks and crannies as locations for nests. Nesting in a natural tree cavity or in a human-provided birdhouse offers an extra degree of security not available to birds that build traditional cup-shape nests, not to mention all the birds that simply lay their eggs right on the ground without going to much effort to construct an actual nest. Some of the cavity-nesting species in the region that will readily accept quarters in a bird house include Carolina chickadee, Eastern bluebird, white-breasted nuthatch, tree swallow, tufted titmouse, great crested flycatcher, prothonotary warbler and house wren. Cavity-nesting isn’t restricted to songbirds. Wood ducks, Eastern screech-owls and American kestrels will make use of birdhouses built to their unique specifications. Plans for constructing your own bird houses tailored to individual species can be found at various online sites. For those not as good with do-it-yourself projects, department stores, gardening centers and other other shops sell a variety of pre-made houses.
Put hummingbird feeders out early
Journey North, a website that tracks the annual migration of hummingbirds as well as other wild creatures reports a slow start to the ruby-throated hummingbird spring migration. “Journey North citizen scientists in Texas and along the Gulf are noting arrivals, but reports are still few and far between,” notes an article on the website. Reports had been received of a ruby-throated hummingbird in Fairhope, Alabama, on March 2, and another in Port O’Connor, Texas, on March 6. However, Journey North reported February’s cold spell across much of the southern U.S. could have caused a delay in migration. To report first observations of migrating ruby-throated hummingbirds, visit journeynorth.org. Whether they’re early, late or right on time, the hummingbirds are only weeks away. There will always be “early birds” even among hummingbirds. Increase the likelihood of seeing one of these tiny gems by putting out a sugar water feeder soon. Remember to fill your feeder with a mixture of one part sugar to four parts water. Don’t add red coloring. Experts suspect that some dyes could be detrimental to hummingbird health. Why take the risk?
This past winter saw large flocks of pine siskin, purple finch and evening grosbeak in some locations across the region. In some states, these large flocks also suffered from outbreaks of diseases, including salmonella. As returning birds mingle with lingering winter visitors at our feeders this spring, the chance of spreading disease will increase. Now is definitely the time to be proactive, cleaning feeders and bird baths regularly and keeping alert to any sign that ill birds might be among the visiting flocks. Cleaning need not be laborious. Fill a spray bottle with a dilute solution of bleach water. A good ratio is no more than 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Remove feeders, give them a quick rinse, and then spritz them with the bleach solution. Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry before refilling with seed for the birds. Keep feeding the birds, but play the diligent host. Put out only the amount of seed that visiting birds can eat in a single day. Monitor the flocks for any sign of illness and respond quickly if such signs are detected.
Refurbish brush piles
This past winter with its heavy snow and ice, as well as fierce winds, no doubt brought down many branches. When cleaning your yard of branches, consider adding them to an existing brush pile. I’ve long been a fan of keeping a brush pile in order to provide the resident songbirds with shelter and security from the elements, as well as from predators. If you don’t have a brush pile, spring’s the perfect time to create one. If an unkempt pile of sticks offends your aesthetic sensibilities, tuck the brush pile into an obscure corner or locate it at the margins of the lawn or garden. Personally, I like to locate brush piles near my busier feeders. A brush pile gives visiting birds a quick retreat if a predatory hawk arrives unexpectedly. For some birds, the need for dense cover is paramount. Offering brush piles, as well as hedges and dense shrubbery, will help welcome visitors such as gray catbirds, Eastern towhees, brown thrashers and some sparrows. Wide, open spaces make many songbirds nervous.
Install water features
With a large fish pond, a flowing creek and a couple of mountain seeps on my property, I’ve never needed to introduce an additional water source. For those with properties that don’t offer ready access to water, adding an ornamental pool or fountain, or even a bird bath or artificial waterfall, will act as a magnet for many birds. American robins and cedar waxwings love a place to splish and splash, as well as take a refreshing sip. Migrating warblers, which for the most part ignore feeders, are almost magically drawn to water features. There is also something relaxing for the human psyche when it comes to water features. Treat yourself as well as the visiting birds by adding one to your lawn or garden.
Make beneficial landscape additions
Spring’s a great time to plan ahead. While a handout of sunflower seed is appreciated by many birds, there’s nothing that beats organic sources of food. Add plants and trees to the landscape of your yard and garden with the express purpose of providing birds with seeds, fruits and berries. Most experts urge native plant varieties that meet the nutritional needs of many bird species. Flowers can be chosen that provide that desired burst of color for an interval but then go on to produce fruit or seeds craved by many birds. Native flowers can also be planted that offer a natural source of nectar for ruby-throated hummingbirds. Do some homework. Some nurseries specialize in native plants.
Give yourself a treat
Now is also the perfect time to indulge in a purchase that will enhance your enjoyment of the returning birds. If you have been wanting a new pair of binoculars, a new software app to help identify birds or a camera to let you document bird sightings with photographs, there’s no time like the present. Welcome spring and the returning birds at the same time while ensuring maximum enjoyment of both.