Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

March is an important month to feed birds
March 10, 2007
Steve Grinley

     The weather this time of year is challenging for us and especially for the birds. Although most of the robins and bluebirds that are seen now have been here all winter, some true spring migrants have been seen in the area over the last week or so. Just before this most recent cold snap, flocks of red-winged blackbirds, with a few grackles and cowbirds, had been reported from all over the area. Seventy-five redwings were counted in a Rowley backyard this past week and we saw several mixed flocks of 20 to 30 blackbirds on a birding trip last weekend. A total of 2,500 redwings were counted in Newburyport just a few days ago.

     Another spring migrant, the killdeer, a shorebird of the plover family that prefers fields and gravelly areas, started to arrive last weekend. We heard a couple of killdeer on Plum Island and we counted six on the frozen tundra of Common Pastures, from Scotland Road in Newbury. It was hard to imagine what they might find to eat this past week. We also saw a lone phoebe perched near a house on Turkey Hill Road in West Newbury last Sunday. This member of the flycatcher family hawks flying insects in mid-air for food. That bird would have been hard pressed to find any flying insects this past week.

     It seems to happen every year this way. These birds, or other early migrants, show up in late February or early March, only to be followed by a snowstorm or other form of extreme weather. This past week of below-zero wind chills must have had its effect on these birds. Why don’t they wait another few weeks before coming to New England? Haven’t they learned by now? After all, most of our winter resident birds are still here. The bald eagles are still on the river. Snowy and short-eared owls are still hunting on Plum Island. Tree sparrows, juncos and white-throated sparrows are still foraging for food at our bird feeders.

     So, with these extremes in weather, it is important to fill your feeders and keep suet out for the winter birds and for the returning spring birds as well. A heated bird bath gets more activity when all the available fresh water is frozen, as it was this past week. Fruit and mealworms for the wintering bluebirds and robins will also be appreciated by the resident Carolina wrens and mockingbirds.

     In the National Wildlife Federation’s current newsletter, George Harrison writes: “March is the most difficult month of the year for birds to find adequate food to survive winter in most of North America. That’s because the supplies of natural food … last year’s seeds, fruits, berries and insect eggs and larvae … are at their lowest levels after months of birds feeding on them. March is too early for a new crop of seeds, fruits, berries, and insects to be available. Therefore, birds have to work harder to find sufficient food during a month when it is still very wintry in much of the country.

     “That’s why March is the best time of the year to feed birds in the backyard. They will respond more readily to feeder foods offered in March than at any other time of the year. Isn’t it curious that in fall … October and November … when natural foods are most abundant, people take the greatest interest in feeding birds? It is in fall when there are the greatest number of bird seed sales, bird feeding seminars, bird store sales, and start-up backyard bird feeding efforts. By March, the interest in bird feeding has waned, at a time when the birds need it most.

     “Though birds are not dependent on feeders for their survival (studies have shown that birds glean 75 percent of their daily food from the wild, even when feeder foods are available), feeding them in March will make life a little easier for them, and under severe conditions, may even save them from starvation.”

     So keep those seed and suet feeders full. Help those wintering birds build up their body fat to survive what’s left of the cold weather and to be able to travel north when it is time. It also helps those spring migrants which may stop at your feeders after traveling hundreds or, sometimes, thousands of miles. It may also lift your spirits to watch the birds at the feeders during this chilly and, often, challenging month of the year.

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