For the Birds Radio Program: Cold Spring!

Original Air Date: May 26, 2004

A freakishly cold snap is sending a lot of unusual birds to backyard feeders.

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Cold spring

Every year as spring migration starts, I harbor a secret hope that this year I’ll see more birds than any other year. And this year, 2004, I seem to have accomplished just that, at least in my own backyard. For over a week I’ve had a veritable rainbow of birds in my backyard: Scarlet Tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, at least 8 different orioles, goldfinches, 18 species of warblers, hummingbirds, flocks of Blue Jays, and several Indigo Buntings. Almost anytime I look out my window, I see vivid color, and waking up to oriole and catbird and tanager songs has been thrilling.

But sadly, this migration has had a dark side, what with so many drizzly days with temperatures that never got above the 40s. Most of the beautiful birds migrating through here depend on a rich supply of insects during migration, and they weren’t to be had when it was so cold, cloudy, and wet. Birds that would normally have quickly headed to more appropriate habitat spent days in backyards, trying to eke out enough food to stay alive till balmier days finally arrive. Almost everyone I know who sets out oranges had Cape May Warblers. My own are coming to oranges, sugar water, grape jelly, and even hard boiled egg yolk, which I set out just to see if anyone was interested. One cold, rainy day a shivering, wet little Chestnut-sided Warbler appeared at my mealworm feeder and ate a few before moving on.

Most of the warblers haven’t been at my feeders, of course. They flit about in my trees and on my lawn, and I have to scan all over with my binoculars to see them. There are still some common warbler species I haven’t seen yet in my yard this year—with any luck at all I’ll end up with over 20 species.

A catbird is coming to my grape jelly and suet. Indigo Buntings are at my window feeders as well as feeding with the hundred Chipping Sparrows in the back of my yard. On the coldest days, chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches came persistently to my window, begging for mealworms for themselves and their hungry babies. Fortunately, since I’m usually home most of the time, I was able to oblige them, which not only directly helped them, but also left more natural food for the warblers that compete for the same arboreal insects.

With birds desperate for food, I’ve heard about several tragic or near-tragic situations. One of my own nuthatches got stuck in the grape jelly I’d set out for orioles, and though he was rescued and is doing fine, I discovered firsthand why it’s important to just set out small plops of jelly at a time. I’ve heard from several people who had found hummingbirds trapped in their garages. A lot of garage door pulls are bright red, which attracts hummingbirds, and especially when they’re so desperate for food entices them into the garage. In a few cases, the hummingbirds have been found dead from exhaustion and starvation, but sometimes they’ve been discovered in time and people have managed to get them outside. One simple act can prevent this situation in the first place—cover the red pull with duct tape or electrical tape to hide the red color.

Interestingly, the more birds we have in our yards, the more birds we’re likely to keep getting. I’ve had as many as 100 Chipping Sparrows at once, and for a week had 10 species of sparrows, all hormonal, singing when they weren’t feeding. All that song attracted migrants flying through the area—I’m sure that’s how one female Bobolink discovered my yard, and she stayed for two days. When warm weather finally arrives, our birds will head for wilder areas. Right now they may be cold and hungry, but setting out a wide variety of food gives them sustenance and, despite the chill, warms our own hearts.