Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Birds Struggle for Early Spring Survival
March 06, 2010
By Steve Grinley

     The milder weather this weekend should have everyone thinking Spring – if we are not already. Last week’s storm took its toll, more on some than others. Many birds did not fare well either. The numerous large evergreen trees that we lost in the storm were shelter and night roosts for many birds. Some of the older trees lost had cavities that provided homes for many birds.

     I was particularly saddened to learn from a boater on Sunday that the Merrimack River eagle nest tree was destroyed in the storm. I passed that information on to Mass Wildlife. They were also shaken by the news, but they were hopeful that the eagle pair, which had nested successfully the past two years there, would stay and rebuild in another tree near the same location.

     We did see an adult bald eagle in that vicinity on my Saturday afternoon walk, spotted first by a sharp-eyed nine year old, Harry. Two adult birds were seen in that vicinity on Sunday, so hopefully the eagles will remain and be successful again this year.

     This time of year is particularly hard on many birds, especially the songbirds that depend on seed and fruit for survival. The winter supply of natural food is depleting and there is more competition for what is left on shrubs and trees. It is disheartening to see so many bird feeders empty. Of course the economy has something to do with that, but so does the misconception that the weather is getting milder and, therefore, birds can fend for themselves. If autumn’s food supply was still on the trees and shrubs (remember the dearth of birds at the feeders last fall?), then that may be more true. But that food has dwindled. The night’s are still cold and the sudden storms that March can produce put added stress on birds. Being able to supplement their natural food with seed and suet at feeders is very welcomed this time of year. It can sometimes mean the difference between survival or not.

     Of course, the birds, being the happy jewels that they are, aren’t showing signs of stress. Instead, they are sounding most joyful as Spring nears. The songs of cardinals, house finches and song sparrows in the morning uplifts our hope of Spring’s arrival. The first red-winged blackbirds and grackles are arriving and their rather non-melodious songs also remind us that warmer weather is near.

     Great horned owls are still hooting back and forth to each other in courtship and some are already on the nest. Red-tailed hawks are courting and will be starting early nests as well. I’ve even heard reports of mourning doves attempting to build nests already, though I think, given their flimsy nest design, that it would not have survived last week’s winds!

     I’ve have a couple of customers tell me that they have had bluebirds checking out their nest boxes already. The customers bought meal worms to try to encourage the bluebirds to stay. Now is a good time to check your old nest boxes and make sure that they are clean and ready for habitation. Now is also a good time to put up a new bluebird box as bluebirds do start nesting in March if the weather cooperates. This gives them a jump on the tree swallows that often compete for the same nest box. Tree swallows don’t arrive until late March or early April.

     Chickadees, tufted titmice and nuthatches are also early nesters and it is good to make sure that you have houses ready for them soon. Phoebes will be arriving in the next couple of weeks and they often return to the same eaves or nesting shelf that they occupied last year. They often just build another nest right on top of the old one. Last year’s offspring will be looking for new locations to nest.

     If you look closely, you might notice a little extra yellow in the male goldfinches already. It will be April before they change completely into to their handsome breeding plumage, but it is already starting. They are flocking once again to our thistle feeders, and this added color is a welcome sight on some on these drab days that we have been through. They provide further evidence that Spring is not far away!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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