For the Birds Radio Program: Ice Storm

Original Air Date: April 18, 2003

During an ice storm, more and more birds appeared in Laura’s backyard.

Audio missing


In two days this week, Duluth went from 80 degree summery conditions to freezing temperatures and fierce winds, and then an ice storm. Migration in southern Wisconsin and Minnesota had completely kicked in, with a fairly big variety of warblers even being recorded, and then wham!

In my own backyard, spring was just slowly getting in gear. My first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker arrived on April 13, my two pairs of Downy Woodpeckers were totally twitterpated, and I had a couple of dozen juncos just about all the time. A single Fox Sparrow turned up now and then since April 4, but that was about it on the feeder front. I did have a couple of signs of the big migration to come—a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and my earliest Yellow-rumped Warbler ever showed up this week.

But then the cold hit. The wind was so fierce on the 16th that birds had trouble negotiating between trees. In my backyard, my three Mourning Doves sat near or on the ground all day, hunkered down, the wind rippling their usually sleek plumage. The chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches were grabbing mealworms as fast as they could, whenever Amanda, my Red-bellied Woodpecker, wasn’t around.

Amanda likes to sit in my office window feeder for many long minutes at a time, pigging out. She takes 20-30 mealworms at a sitting, and sometimes goes through over $5 worth of mealworms in a single day. I like feeding her—it’s such a rare event up here to have a Red-bellied Woodpecker at all—but those mealworms really are for my chickadees, and they were fluffed up and cold and having a hard enough time in the wind without having to sit in the exposed branches of the nearby trees waiting for Amanda to eat her fill. So whenever I noticed a chickadee waiting, I’d get up from my computer and walk to the window and look Amanda in the eye and tell her she’d had enough for now. She would grab three or four mealworms in her beak and fly to the elm tree. I watched her there—she’d wedge the mealworms in a crevice of the bark and eat them one by one while the chickadees zipped in one by one to snatch a mealworm and fly off. Of course some of those chickadees are little pigs, too—a few will pick up mealworms the way blue jays pick up peanuts, apparently weighing them to select the biggest. More of them grab two or three. Chickadees are uncomfortable when they’re too close together, so even the top birds in the flock’s pecking order don’t stay in the feeder long. Usually the whole flock could come once or twice before Amanda returned.

The ice hit on the night of the 16th, and so as soon as I woke up on the 17th, I went out and filled my feeders and scattered seeds for the juncos. By 9 in the morning, I had a couple of dozen juncos, and three Fox Sparrows. A pair of grackles showed up a few minutes later, and one Red-winged Blackbird.

And then, for the rest of the day, every time I looked out, my backyard had more birds than the time before. Once I saw a peculiar bump on one of my spruce trees that my binoculars revealed as a flicker, hunched up and shivering. Next time I looked he was at the base of my dead birch tree pecking for ants, and a while later he was at the base of my neighbor’s tree doing the same thing. A couple of Song Sparrows turned up, and more and more grackles showed up until I had a couple of dozen. I saw one lunge for a junco, so when they would descend I started opening the window—the very sound of that made them fly away while the littler birds weren’t nearly so skittish. A male Ruby-crowned Kinglet flitted in and out of the spruce branches, a Blue Jay flew in briefly, and a pair of House Finches and a pair of Purple Finches turned up, too.

But the coolest thing of the day was the Fox Sparrows. By noon there were six of them. By mid afternoon another dozen had joined them. And by late afternoon there were fully 30 of them in the yard, several singing all at once, their lovely song permeating my securely closed windows, their rusty plumage and assertive ground-scratching all around the back yard making an eye-pleasing display. There will certainly be a few more wintry days this month and next, but with such back-yard delights, I won’t complain.