Most of us had been wondering if we were going to have a real winter or not. We got our answer and seem to be firmly entrenched in middle of a rather cold winter. We, and our feathered friends, are dreaming of warmer spring days ahead!
Certainly, if you have been feeding the birds this winter, you have had the self-satisfaction of helping nature during this steady cold stretch.I have enjoyed hearing from so many of our readers and bird feed clients about their various bird sightings and experiences. I have some responses for some of your questions and observations.
This winter many of us have been seeing robins – usually sporadically. My thoughts are that these robins are visitors from the north, calling this their “south for the winter” enjoying a good supply of wild fruits, berries, and sumac. Several sightings of bluebirds have also given us a preview of spring coming – though none of these sightings really do mean spring. The bluebirds could be Canadian visitors, too, or holdovers from summer roughing it for the winter.
It won’t be until March that we can start calling the sightings of robins and bluebirds signs of spring. That’s just my opinion. However, I am happy to report that we did have our first two red-winged blackbirds show up on Feb. 1 this year. Were those early returning migrants? It could be as the month of February generally brings the first few red-wings, though usually during the second half of the month. I truly think they are the first “real” signs of spring. By early March they really start pouring in and soon after that a few other blackbirds appear along with the robins and bluebirds.
In preparation for the bluebird nesting season which starts in April, March is a good time to clean out your bluebird nest boxes. Some of your nest boxes may have white-footed deer mice in them. The mice make a stinky mess in there. I hate to evict them when the weather is really cold so I wait for a little mild stretch so they can find a place to live on the ground. Often, they will climb back into the nest box, but to no avail as I leave the nest box open – partly for that reason and partly so that the nest box dries and airs out for a week or two.
The variety of woodpeckers that have been seen at feeding stations is fascinating. Pileated woodpeckers, flickers, and sapsuckers have been enjoying suet and peanut feeders this winter besides the other three much more common species – the red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers. All six species, along with two nuthatch species, chickadees, titmice, cardinals, blue jays, juncos, finches, doves, and several native sparrows make for an active feeding station.
This is the time of year to especially enjoy your cardinals. In many households the counting of the cardinals is a great pastime. At first you may have three cardinals – like two males and one female. Then a little later you see two females at once so that means you have four cardinals. This exercise eventually gets your cardinal count much higher than you first realized.
It is very possible, given the correct nearby habitat, to attract 10, or even 20 or more of them! I often mention that once we get deep into winter the cardinals seem to become more reliant on the feeding station as the winter cold bears on them and much of their natural food supplies are dwindling.
Counting cardinals is a great little exercise to do with the kids. Adding the red male count to the brown female count make for some really fun and simple math!
Seeing the bright red male cardinal against the bright white snow is really a sight to see. Fitting for this Valentines season with red everywhere. To top it off, this is when the cardinals start whistling their familiar repetitious “love songs” from their perches in the hedgerows and shrubs on these cold, but sunny days. They are very good harbingers of spring.
Pay attention over the next few days or couple of weeks and see if you can hear the cardinals singing. The house finches are singing as well. When the red-wings get here they will be adding to the repertoire that will truly give you that welcome sound of spring.
Hawks in your yard are looking for food which are other birds. These hawks are called Cooper’s hawks, along with their smaller cousins, the sharp-shinned hawks. They predominantly eat other birds and their wings and tail are designed to fly fast to catch them. Whether you feed the birds or not, these hawks will catch birds for their daily diets. Red-tailed hawks do not invade the back yard in pursuit of small birds as they focus on small mammals.
Happy birding and think spring, but don’t wish your life away … instead enjoy the journey! And don’t forget to count your cardinals!
Hans Kunze is an avid birder and nature enthusiast who has been writing about birds and nature for more than 30 years. He writes for The Livingston County News twice each month. Write him at 6340 LaGrange Rd Wyoming, NY 14591 or call (585) 813-2676.