Spring’s Cold Brought Bright Birds to Feeders

Baltimore Oriole at Jelly Feeder

Baltimore Oriole at Jelly Feeder
Photo credit: Jim Williams

by Val Cunningham
Contributing Writer

A colorful array of migrants—brilliant orange orioles, vivid blue buntings, black-white-and-pink grosbeaks—livened up our springtime backyards.

May’s cold spring weather was tough on people’s psyches, but it was even rougher on birds. After a series of cold, wet days, birds can find it tough to survive, especially birds whose diet is based on insects.

Baltimore orioles returned to our region during May’s chill and many people were delighted to observe these brilliant black and orange birds dropping by for grape jelly, orange halves and even peanuts. Several readers reported the stunning sight of eight to 10 orioles at a time crowding around their feeding stations.

Why were there suddenly so many orioles around backyards?

The likeliest explanation is that that the birds were stressed by hunger. Orioles traditionally feed in the spring high in the tree canopy on caterpillars and adult insects. But the insect hatch was behind schedule this spring, causing orioles to line up for feeder meals.

A similar thing happened in the warbler world: these tiny, colorful birds race through our region each spring on migration, sustained by insects. Suddenly, these elusive little birds were visible everywhere. Bird watchers are used to watching for warblers in the treetops as the birds probe for insects. But this May, warblers were foraging at lower levels, among backyard shrubbery, and even feeding on the ground, on sidewalks and path sides. Some yellow-rumped warblers stopped at suet feeders for a high-energy snack.

On a bird walk during the Urban Birding Festival in mid-May, a group of us discovered a wave of warblers at an elm tree alongside Como Lake. Instead of us having to work to find them flitting within the canopy, the little birds came to us. We stood in awe for 45 minutes, as warbler after warbler flew into the tree or dropped to the ground along the footpath. Blackburnian warblers, bay-breasted warblers, palm warblers, black and white warblers, black-throated green warblers and yellow-rumped warblers seemed oblivious to humans as they snapped up tiny insects crawling on the asphalt.

It’s so unusual to find warblers feeding on the ground—these are usually found high in the tree canopy—that I decided to check with someone who has his fingers on nature’s pulse.

Carrol Henderson, supervisor of the Nongame Wildlife Program for the Department of Natural Resources, speculates that the cool spring weather may have delayed the emergence of some of the insects warblers usually feed on, so the birds were foraging wherever they could find a meal. Prolonged periods of staring overhead through a pair of binoculars causes a kind of neck strain, known to birders as “warbler neck.” But, as Henderson noted, cases of warbler neck were few and far between this spring, with warblers at shoe level.

Rose-breasted grosbeaks bunched up at feeders, too, a stirring sight, as bright black and white males with their rosy bandanas settled in with their brown and white female counterparts. Their huge “grosbeaks” crunched through seeds at a fast pace.

A number of people were astonished to see a small, bright blue bird perched in a backyard tree or shrub, or even visiting seed feeders. For some, this was their first-ever sighting of an indigo bunting, a goldfinch-sized bird that appears a brilliant blue in the sunlight.

Kraig Kelsey, who owns and runs a wild bird supply store in North Oaks, says a number of customers rushed in to ask: “What are those blue birds and what do they eat? I’ve got to get a feeder for them!”

All in all, it’s been a fairly unusual spring, but as they say, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody good—many of us have enjoyed the opportunity to see so many beautiful birds up close.

Help the birds

Some things you can do to assist birds during their busiest season, as they build nests and raise their young:

  • For female birds, set out crushed eggshells to replenish calcium (after baking at 250 degrees for 20 minutes).
  • Keep birdbath water fresh so parent birds can bathe and drink.
  • Place nesting material (short lengths of string, yarn and insecticide-free pet fur) on fences or tree branches.
  • Offer suet cakes and shelled peanuts for woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees.
  • Keep cats indoors to confine this dangerous predator of birds.

St. Paul, Minnesota resident Val Cunningham, leads bird hikes for the St. Paul Audubon Society and writes about nature for local, regional and national newspapers and magazines.