Birds on the fly northward

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

In these last few weeks of winter weather (one hopes) we began noticing the uptick of birds at the feeders. There have been some birds on our deck and at the feeders all winter, but we occasionally see a real influx to the neighborhood.

Halfway out our street we usually see a small flock of robins, still rather peaceably grazing the front yards of the houses there. And there’s a family of crows that keep things stirred up, especially when a hawk is sitting in a tree near the pond. Sounds like a political rally.

Several years ago we had a flock of cedar waxwings descend on the Nandina bushes. They stripped those red berries in about as little time as it has taken me to type this. Then for several years they did not stop here.

But when Dave went out to the mailbox earlier this week, he noticed that our spectacular pyracantha bushes were green. Just green. No hint of scarlet berries that had lighted our way to the mail this fall.

Most of the winds now sweeping us springward are also sweeping in a few of our natives, birds that have been here but sort of laid low while the flocking birds take over the feeders. The little guys – nuthatches, house finches, titmice, Carolina wrens and chickadees – are pretty good at keeping away from the long, hard wings of the woodpeckers and (more recently) brown thrashers.

Then the towhee shows up, and the goldfinches attract attention, one big plop of gold at a time. The blue jays are, as usual, obnoxious. Did I mention the return of the yellow-rumped and pine warblers? Hard-working little guys and so pretty, as courting season begins.

If you are going to put out a hummingbird feeder and keep it up and clean for our tiniest visitors, now is the time to start. I have not heard from anyone who has had hummers all winter, but we usually note that by March 25 (our wedding anniversary), a few come through, probably on their way further north.

On their behalf, I beg you not to forget about the feeders’ 4-to-1 solution once you start putting it out. Those little engines require a lot of fuel.

And since you ask what we feed our visitors, here’s what we put out: black-oil sunflower seeds, which probably feed the most birds, but, of course, the squirrels like it too. The mixed seeds are low on our list; attracting only our few millet lovers, which prefer sunflower seeds anyway. The ground feeders love cracked corn, and while it also attracts squirrels, is cheap enough to share.

Most birds relish the fat in suet and peanut butter in cold weather. The trick is keeping squirrels out of it – I’ll let you figure that one out. Give your guests stale bread or cake on which you have dribbled cooking oil and sugar too. I forgot Niger or thistle seed: Yes, goldfinches love it, but sometimes they won’t look twice at it. This is also not an exact science.

Make sure water is available and kept thawed, county restrictions notwithstanding. We refill birdbaths with water caught in a bucket in the shower. It’s always been a puzzle to us that birds prefer water from the recycling birdbath when they have three huge ponds just a few yards from our house. And no matter how cold it is, there are birds almost always drinking or bathing here even if we have to bring hot water out to thaw a puddle.

Let me give you the rest of the drill for bird care.

The best way to help a stunned bird is to do nothing but put it in a dark, warm place – we use a shoebox – for about a half hour. The hard thing to do, especially with kids in the family, is to leave it alone. Petting it or just peeking under the lid panics the bird and puts a potentially fatal stress on it. And no, he doesn’t need a drink of water, not for that short a time.

Almost invariably, if it is not outright dead or badly hurt, a bird will become alert, preen its feathers, and be on its way. Birds are remarkably tough, born survivors, and if they look fat and well-fed in winter, it’s because they fluff their feathers to increase the amount of heat-trapping air close to their bodies.

Ornithologists estimate birds get only about 25 percent of their food from feeders, the rest from nature, so don’t let an occasional lapse shut down your whole feeding station. According to the Audubon Society's "North American Birdfeeder Handbook," the supplement birds find at feeders can mean the difference between life and death.

Next best winter food is peanut butter. We take the lid off a jar of Kroger's cheapest and lay it on its side. Dave built a support for two such jars, under a squirrel baffle, and in cold weather, birds are there all day storing up heat-producing fat. And note that suet cakes are cheaper at Kroger than anywhere else we’ve looked.

I’m not pretending to be an expert, but we both spend lots of time watching them from the table, and Dave reads a lot. Will try to answer questions or refer you to someone who can. Write me at

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