Springtime In Paradise–the Birds Are Returning

By Scott Shalaway
FINALLY four consecutive days of sunshine, blue skies and gentle breezes this week tell me spring has returned. Red maple buds have bloomed, brilliant yellow coltsfeet line the edges of country roads, and fields and meadows have morphed from brown to vivid green.

And every day new spring migrants return. On Monday I heard the sweet monotone trill of a Chipping Sparrow. On Tuesday a Field Sparrow sang from the meadow below the house. A series of high-pitched notes at an ever accelerating pace makes this song easy to recognize. The notes’ pattern suggests the cadence of a ping-pong ball dropped on a table. And Thursday Tree Swallows appeared in the hay field and began checking out nest boxes.

Eastern Phoebes, the first song birds of spring, returned weeks ago and are now building a nest on a light fixture on the porch.

But this is just the first trickle of spring migration. It will continue throughout April and peak in May. The actual migration usually takes place at night, primarily because that’s when the sky is most free of predators.

“Flocks of these nocturnal migrants rise from their daily resting places about one half hour after sunset, appearing like a huge cloud lifting from the Earth on weather radar systems,” explains Dan Brauning, Pennsylvania Game Commission Wildlife Diversity Section supervisor.

“A normal May morning will find dozens of species pursuing insects in treetops and underbrush,” he says. Many of these will briefly appear in suburban backyards. On particularly active mornings after a clear night and southern breeze, trees may be swarming with birds such as Black-throated Green Warblers and Red-eyed Vireos. A sharp eye and good pair of binoculars are needed to sort out the flitting specks of color.”

Though many people put away their bird feeders during spring and summer, others wonder if it’s OK to continue feeding birds year round. Though many birds shift to a diet of live insects and other invertebrates when weather permits, many continue to visit feeders for an easy source of food. But if you’ve ever seen a bear near your home, beware.

Mark Terrnent, Pennsylvania Game Commission bear biologist, urges those who live in bear country to reconsider feeding birds during spring and summer.

“Residents who put out bird feeders–or any food for wildlife, for that matter –after bears have left their dens may attract bears to their property,” he cautioned. “Once bears learn that food is available in your yard, they will return and often become a nuisance by damaging property or upturning garbage cans. That is why intentionally or unintentionally feeding bears is illegal.”

If you must feed birds where bears are common, Terrnent suggests bringing feeders inside at night, or suspending them at least 10 ft. above the ground and four feet from anything a bear might climb, including overhead limbs.

Christopher Ryan, Black Bear Project Leader for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources echoes Terrnent’s advice.

“Bears that wander near residential areas in search of food are less likely to stay if they do not find anything to eat,” Ryan said. “People need to secure garbage in bear-proof facilities and place trash out for collection on the morning of pickup. Residents should remove all outside pet food at night, and bird feeders should be taken down, cleaned and stored until late fall to further discourage feeding around human habitation.”

Otherwise, bears become habituated to handouts and lose their fear of humans. When bears lose this fear they resort to raiding garbage and other food sources associated with people. Unfortunately, if these activities are repeated, wildlife personnel are forced to humanely destroy the offender for safety reasons.

Nectar feeders intended for hummingbirds are particularly attractive to bears because they have a sweet tooth, so be sure to take them in at night.

And, by the way, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are back. There have already been reported as far north as Michigan, Rhode Island and New York. Check their northward progress at www.hummingbirds.net/map.html. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette