Hungry birds returning to springtime snow

When spring arrives, many people stop filling the bird feeders that kept birds coming to their backyards during the winter months, when food is scarce. However, birds can benefit from bird feeders during the spring and summer months as well.

“It helps to continue to offer the calories so the birds aren't struggling to find food just when they are molting their feathers and getting ready to start breeding,” said Peggy Doty, extension educator with the University of Illinois Extension. “Also, those who had migrated will be more successful after being trimmed out from the flight back.”

More than 100 North American bird species supplement their natural diets with birdseed, suet, fruit and nectar obtained from feeders, according the National Audubon Society’s website. Additional species visit feeders during the spring and fall migrations and during summer, while nesting.

Mike Andrews of Genoa, founder of the local Kishwaukee Riparian Oaks Watershed birding group, said even one or two simple feeders will attract a large variety of birds.

“I would recommend a cylinder feeder that will hold black oil sunflower seeds. That will give you a nice mix (of birds),” Andrews said. “Next I would throw in a suet feeder for woodpeckers and nuthatches. It’s high-energy food, so other birds will use it.”

Andrews said inexpensive bird seed mixes often contain mostly millet that usually gets spilled on the ground and “attracts pigeons and mourning doves, but not a lot of others.”

Andrews suggests placing bird feeders near trees or shrubs so that birds can get to cover quickly if they feel threatened, and adding a bird bath to the area. He recommends using a weak bleach solution to clean the feeders every seven to 10 days to prevent the spread of disease. Avian conjunctivitis, for example, is a bacterial disease that has affected finch species since the mid 1990s.

“Many goldfinches and house finches die from avian conjunctivitis,” Andrews said.

Welcome back, robins

Residents of northern Illinois have noted flocks of robins cleaning up the dried fruit on trees and shrubs since early February. Why would they return so early with the possibility of more snow? University of Illinois Extension Educator Peggy Doty said it's possible they never left.

"Robins tend to flock up in August and prepare for migration, however, with our milder winters they sometimes just tuck away in wooded areas because their survival is not threatened," she said.

Wherever they came from, robins are definitely not eating worms from snow-covered yards. They are gleaning fruit from trees such as crab apples and mountain ash. For those who want to help these early birds who have no worms, Doty recommends tucking a tray with small pieces of dried fruit near, but not under, a shrub or small tree. Treats such as dried raisins, cranberries, apples, blueberries and raspberries are all favorites.

“You have to remember they do not know to look on the ground for the fruit they seek in winter, as it is usually attached to a large plant," she said. "If you really want to get their attention you can add some mealworms to the tray each day."

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