No spring in the step of hungry spring birds


Ah, spring! Warm, soft winds and bright skies have washed away the dull, gray boredom of winter. Flower buds erupt in exuberant colors and trees bedeck themselves in cloaks of green. Melodious trills and twitters of birds fill the air. Earth seems fresh, reborn, fully alive, signaling all is well.

Or is it? Probably not for those birds whose cheery-sounding vocalizations are disguising a struggle to stay alive. They’re compelled to sing — it’s time to attract a mate — but they may also be starving.

In summer and fall, when flowering plants, vegetables, herbs, shrubs and trees are in full bloom, laden with seeds, and protein-rich insects are everywhere, birds have a veritable smorgasbord of high-energy, muscle-building foods spread before them. Their bellies are full; there’s food for their babies.

Then come fall and winter. Insects die or hibernate, and plants go dormant. Nature’s stockpile of food shrinks with each passing day. Some foods get buried under leaf litter, washed away in storms, made moldy by melting ice and snow. What’s left is consumed by birds and countless other animals throughout the winter. Competition for food gets stiffer as winter wears on.

Birds have a high metabolic rate and must consume enough high-fat, high-calorie food during each day to maintain their body temperature through the bitter, sometimes sub-freezing, night. As food availability diminishes, the search for it can become a bird’s all-day enterprise, every single day, just to keep itself alive until the next morning. Winter is harsh, and some don’t make it.

By spring, food is almost gone. This year’s crop is yet to be produced and insects are still scarce. What’s a hungry bird to do? They’ve no choice but to struggle on through hardscrabble days until food is more plentiful.

We can save them from some of this hardship with a well-stocked feeder. Surveys show that half the households in the U.S. feed wild birds. Are you one of them? If not, it’s easy to become part of this popular, beneficial hobby, and it so happens that spring is a perfect time to start.

Feeding birds can be as simple as scattering some birdseed on the ground. Birdseed is available at most large grocery stores, but check the label before buying. Many inexpensive mixed-seed packages they offer contain large quantities of worthless seeds most birds won’t eat, even when they’re famished. Your local seed and feed stores will have the most extensive variety of preferred foods.

You’ll also want to provide the right kind of seed for the birds in your area. If you’re not sure, then offer the two seeds eaten by most birds: black oil sunflower seeds (in or out of the shell) in a suitable feeder and white millet on a platform feeder. This page has a list of seeds preferred by different kinds of birds.

The kind of feeder you use is important, too, with several things to consider. Some birds feed on the ground (substitute a platform feeder for the ground to keep seed fresher, especially in wet weather.) Other birds need a tubular feeder with small ports. The size of the perch on a feeder matters, too, so read this page for guidance. Your local birdseed store probably knows what birds visit your area, the kind of feeder you need and the proper seed to buy.

If you’re interested in identifying the birds coming to your feeders, you’ll want a useful field guide. Your local bookstore or internet booksellers will have a variety, including some specifically for your area or state. A pair of binoculars can be helpful (inexpensive will do).

*Blue Jay, Cyanocitta cristata. (Maria Corcacas / StockXchg; PD)

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