For the Birds Radio Program: Feeding Birds Responsibly in Spring

Original Air Date: April 25, 1988

To feed or not to feed, that is the question.

Duration: 3′48″


(Recording of a White-throated Sparrow)

Now that spring is more than just a promise, a lot of people are putting out bird houses and taking in their feeders for another year. It’s probably not too late to set out martin and bluebird houses, though you really better get moving if you’re going to get anything to nest in them besides House Sparrows. Once birds’ hormones get surging in springtime, they can’t just sit around waiting for couch potatoes to get crackin’.

As far as feeding birds in spring, I’m all for it. There are two completely different purposes in bird feeding. Some people do it strictly to help birds survive the rigors of winter–these people take in their feeders at the first sign of warmth, fearing that otherwise their birds will become spoiled or dependent upon the kindness of strangers. Since migration holds rigors of its own, I hardly object to making the trip a bit easier for sparrows and finches, and once the neighborhood birds start breeding, I like to make the job at least a little easier for the parents. Just about all songbirds feed their babies insects and other animal life, because the babies need protein in enormous quantities. But the parents are kept so busy hunting for bugs that they often don’t have time to feed themselves–many of them lose every gram of body fat during the nesting period. I notice at my own feeder that the adults stop by for a few minutes each day and pig out–even a bird mom needs a break sometimes.

But there’s another reason to feed birds besides helping them. A lot of people do it simply to be able to watch them better. And spring is a great time to see a variety of migrant birds at close range. If you’re interested in finally learning all those sparrows, a feeder is a great place to study them.

But spring and summer feeding can be hazardous unless you are careful about cleanliness. A good rinsing with bleach or disinfectant isn’t a bad idea for an old feeder, as long as you let the wood dry afterwards. Rake up all the seed shells, too. It’s also a good idea to move the feeders to another spot in the yard every now and then so droppings don’t accumulate and become layered. By the way, the easiest way to set a feeder on a pole in the ground is to hammer in a 3- or 4-foot pipe that’s slightly wider than your pole until it’s flush with the ground. That not only makes it easier to put in and pull out a feeder pole, it also makes mowing easier.

As the days grow warmer, suet gets rancid quickly, so if you haven’t already, better throw it out soon. It’s getting to be about time to put out grape jelly if you want to attract catbirds and orioles, though most of them won’t be back for at least a couple of weeks. If you have a platform feeder, the easiest thing to do is spoon some grape jelly into a heavy plastic cereal bowl and set it in the corner of the feeder. Otherwise you can set it on a deck railing or picnic table. Oranges cut in half will attract orioles to your yard in May, unless there’s too many spruces and not enough deciduous trees in your area. Dutch elm disease is taking a toll on the Northland’s orioles, because an oriole’s tree of choice for nest-building is the elm. That makes seeing the orange paint marks on doomed trees doubly sad for me. But over time orioles will probably adapt to new trees, and spring will again hold promise for all the Northland birds.

(Recording of a Northern Oriole)

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