Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

March is a Critical Month for Birds
March 18, 2017
By Steve Grinley

     The weather this time of year is challenging for us but it is especially challenging for the birds. Although many of the robins and bluebirds that we see now have been here all winter, some true spring migrants have come into the area over the past few weeks. Just before this most recent cold snap, flocks of red-winged blackbirds, grackles and cowbirds had been reported from all over the area. Complaints of blackbirds over-taking feeders are already pouring in.

     Another spring migrant, the killdeer, a plover that prefers fields and gravelly areas, started arriving a couple of weeks ago. I heard killdeer calling from the farm across Route 1 from the store and we had several killdeer on Plum Island in the grasses around the Salt Pannes. It is hard to imagine what they might find to eat this past week.

     A few phoebes have shown up in Massachusetts, mostly on the south shore and cape. This member of the flycatcher family hawks flying insects in mid-air for food. Those birds have been hard pressed to find any flying insects this past week.

     It seems to happen every year this way. These 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 just 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 winter ducks are still on the rivers. Tree sparrows, juncos and white-throated sparrows are still foraging for food at our bird feeders.

     As I drive around and see so many empty feeders in people’s yards, I worry for the birds that could be helped with the supplemental food a filled feeder provides. With the extremes in weather that we are experiencing, it is important to fill your feeders and keep suet out for the winter birds and for the returning spring birds as well. Put fruit and mealworms out for the wintering bluebirds and robins, as it will also be appreciated by the resident Carolina wrens and mockingbirds. A heated bird bath with fresh water draws more activity when natural water supplies freezes up, as was the case so often this month.

     In a past National Wildlife Federation’s newsletter, George Harrison wrote: “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 please 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 help enable them to travel north when it is time. It will also help those spring migrants which may stop at your feeders after traveling hundreds or, sometimes, thousands of miles. It will certainly lift your spirits to watch the birds at the feeders during this cold 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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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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