Top 10 Reasons Spring Feeding is Great

By Bill Thompson, III
YOU KNOW SPRING has sprung when find yourself turning away from the piles of discarded seed hulls beneath the feeders, and ignoring the fact that your flower beds need some serious attention. Still, spring is the season of promise, renewal, and some pretty neat action at the bird feeder. Below, in lilting prose and taxonomic order, are my top 10 reasons why spring bird feeding is great. Special thanks to Julie Zickefoose for her able assistance on this one (read: it was her idea).

1. Filling your feeders in shirtsleeves! OK, I admit that I said a few bad words while filling the feeders during the long and snowy winter we just had. When it takes you 20 minutes to suit up just to fill your feeders, it makes you wonder–for a moment–why you’re doing it. Summer feeder duty, by contrast, is a joy. A few handfuls of seed, some nectar refills, a bit of fruit, and a few worms–it’s a piece of cake. What’s best, though, is getting to stay outside to enjoy the birds that come to the refilled feeders. No more watching through glass. These birds are right there for our watching and listening enjoyment.

2. Shifting gears. Spring cleaning goes on outside as well as inside, and we welcome the shifting of gears. We move our feeders to a new spot. We clean out our giant winter seed storage bins for our more modest spring/summer ones. We get all the hummer feeders ready for action. We feed less seed and more mealworms and fruit. We clean out a few juice jugs for use as nectar-storage containers in our refrigerator. We watch for the emergence of natural food sources such as dandelions, honeysuckle, and volunteer sunflowers. And we wave goodbye to our winter visitors, the juncos, white-throated and white-crowned sparrows, purple finches, and black-capped chickadees, all of whom leave us to head north for the breeding season.

3. Waiting for the first hummingbird. Perhaps you are lucky enough to live in a part of the continent where you get hummers all year long. If so, there is no first hummingbird of spring, but you may get a thrill when your summer resident species return. We go nuts waiting for our first rubythroat to show up. Our records indicate that this happens every spring during the first week of April. If a hummer (always an early returning male) appears before we’ve put the feeders out at our kitchen window where the feeder hung last summer, there’s a shout, a mad scramble, and then a bit of nail biting until we see that our feeder is patronized. It always is.

4. Offering fruit and nectar. Almost any kind of fruit you put out for the birds will be eaten by some species. Old standbys are oranges, grapefruits, melons, grapes, and apples. Use your imagination and see what your birds prefer. We spike the fruits onto nails driven into feeder posts and snags all around our yard. For shy species, such as orioles and tanagers, we place a few oranges around the edges of our yard near spots these birds already frequent. Nectar is not just for hummingbirds anymore. More than 50 species have been recorded consuming nectar from feeding stations. Offer a bit in a wide-mouthed jar suspended from heavy-gauge wire. House finches, orioles, tanagers, woodpeckers, and even warblers may stop by for a sip of sweetness. For more info on feeding fruits to birds, see “Fruits Birds Love” by Kathy Piper in the March/April 2000 issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest.

5. Offering eggshells. Have you seen the commercials on TV that say “We all need calcium”? Birds need it, too, especially during the energy-sapping period of egg laying. A female bird converts the calcium she gets from eating eggshells right back into, you guessed it, eggshells. But this time it’s shells for the eggs developing inside her, the ones she’s about to deposit in her nest. Here’s the eggshell recipe: Wash eggshells thoroughly and place in a pie pan in your oven. Bake them at about 250 degrees for 10-30 minutes. Crush them into small bits and scatter in an open spot, such as a driveway, sidewalk, deck, or platform feeder. Watch as all kinds of birds stop by for a nibble. At our farm, martins, barn and tree swallows, chipping and song sparrows, bluebirds, robins, eastern towhees, and Carolina chickadees have eaten the eggshell bits we offer.

6. Offering nesting material. Among the things that can be put out in your yard or garden for nest-building birds are dried grasses, pine needles, clean dryer lint, cotton balls, pet or human hair clippings, and very short (shorter than three inches) pieces of soft yarn. Long pieces of string, yarn, wire, or plastic should be avoided (or picked up and discarded safely if you find them) because they can tangle around bird legs and entrap nestlings or even adults.

7. Courtship behavior. Watch your feeders for fights, for flirting, for chases among rivals and potential mates, and for pair bonds to begin forming. The classic example is what’s known as the cardinal kiss. A male cardinal offers a seed in its bill to a female. If she accepts, you know you’ve probably got a mated pair. The male will continue to offer the female food as a way to demonstrate his intentions to her, and perhaps to show that he’s not only a caring mate, but also knows how to pick out the best sunflower seeds, thus demonstrating his “hunting” prowess.

8. Bird song right outside the window. For those of us in wintry regions, spring brings back bird song to our ears. Backyards in warmer, sunnier regions may get lots of song throughout the year because some species actively court and breed during what we consider to be the winter months. Across the upper two-thirds of North America some brave avian souls sing half-heartedly on sunny days all winter. As the days lengthen and warm, everybody gets into the act. Even birds that think they have a song, but don’t, such as the yellow-headed or red-winged blackbirds, brown-headed cowbirds, or any of the woodpeckers, get into the act of spring noise making. They can’t help it, they’ve got spring fever, too. I love waking up to the cacophony on a sunny April morning. And I’m counting the days until then.

9. Goldfinches molt into spring finery. Out with the old and in with the new! Nothing gets my spring fever working like that first early March glimpse of a male American goldfinch with a splotch of brand-new canary yellow feathers. Though all species go through a spring molting of feathers (old feathers fall out, new ones grow in), not all are as dramatically transforming as the American goldfinch’s.

10. Species diversity goes up as spring migrants come through. On a busy spring morning the activity at your feeders will attract other birds, perhaps including some unusual feeder visitors. At our feeders, a week of spring mornings can bring us a rose-breasted grosbeak, fox sparrow, Savannah sparrow, eastern meadowlark, red-headed woodpecker, or yellow-rumped warbler. These are all species that we have only as sporadic feeder visitors during a few weeks in the spring. –Bird Watcher’s Digest