For the Birds Radio Program: Lousy Weather: Spring Update

Original Air Date: May 23, 1986

When conditions are perfect for birding, they’re not so perfect for the birds. How can we help them?

Duration: 3′12″



On a program last week, I talked about the DDDDDDD’s–those dreary, drizzly, drippy, dank, dark, depressing Duluth days that optimistic birders get so excited about. Those are the days when migrants stay low–easy to spot, and when rarities are most likely to be found in Duluth.

Unfortunately, those same days are not quite so popular with the birds themselves. The tinier a bird is, the more critical it is for it to eat enough food each day, just to stay alive.

Most of the tiny migrants that return to Duluth each spring eat insects–that is why they go south for the winter in the first place. Even hummingbirds get their protein from the many insects trapped in the sticky nectar of flowers and hummingbird feeders. On days when the temperature is in the 30’s or 40’s, not many cold-blooded insects are active, and small migrant birds can become desperate in their search for food.

Rain and fog make it worse– a bird’s body loses heat faster when it’s wet. Imagine spending a day or two in a wet sleeping bag and you’ll get the picture.

Mother’s Day this year was rainy and foggy, and it never did get above 40 degrees all day. Yellow Warblers, which should have been fly- catching for mosquitoes and other insects, were found eating cracked corn at one Duluth feeder. Cape May Warblers in my yard were eating the oranges and grape jelly which I’d set out for orioles. Warblers were also eating from suet feeders in town. These birds were badly stressed.

The problem is, most species of birds do not turn around and go south during a spring cold spell. The urge to start nesting, which is triggered by the lengthening days, grows stronger the farther north they get. If a bird takes advantage of a warm-front to push him north, and then the weather turns bad, he’s in trouble.

The picture is not as bleak as it sounds–after all, species wouldn’t have developed the instinct to migrate if it meant that too many of them would die. But lousy weather kills many individual birds each year during migration.

Your own feeder may be the only thing keeping some birds alive during bad spells. It’s important to leave out nutritious food–White bread is probably even less nourishing for birds than it is for people, though if birds are badly stressed, the carbohydrates in bread may help them for a day or two. Set out cracked corn and sunflower seeds for sparrows and finches. Mixed seeds are popular with sparrows. Jelly, oranges, and sugar water attract orioles, catbirds, brown thrashers, and hummingbirds–if you’re really lucky, you’ll even get a Mockingbird. Suet and peanut butter are good for blue jays, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, and even warblers and other insect eaters.

Once you get your feeding station going, birds like this white- throated sparrow will thank you for it.


This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”