Near record cold and well below freezing. Snow in the forecast. This isn’t the April we’ve all been waiting for. Winter is being a bit stubborn this year and not bowing out gracefully. The birds are hungry and start swarming the feeders in the backyard before sunrise. “My bluebirds” and some fluffed up, cold-looking robins usually join the mixed flock for breakfast and a drink at the bird bath just after sunrise.
The winter birds continue to enjoy their various kinds of seeds and suet as they have all winter, but some of the newly arrived spring birds aren’t accustomed to eating that kind of food. Grackles and red-winged blackbirds do fine with seeds, but robins and bluebirds prefer softer fruits and animal foods like worms and insects. Robins have been able to find a few worms when the ground is thawed, but their preferred foods are hard to find or totally unavailable on frozen mornings. Insects that bluebirds prefer to eat haven’t appeared yet, and dried berries and fruit on trees and shrubs in our neighborhood had already been consumed weeks ago. I have tried to help these new arrivals get by until spring finally beats winter into submission and their preferred foods become easier to find.
It’s been interesting to watch the bluebirds and robins learn to eat things that they normally wouldn’t recognize as food and find it in places that they wouldn’t normally look for it. Chopped up fruit and boiled eggs weren’t real popular, but wax worms, my left-over ice fishing bait, were relished. Seeds are not a preferred food for robins and bluebirds, but they are learning to eat finely chopped sunflower seed. They have taken a liking to suet cakes that contain dried berries. My suet feeders are well suited for birds like woodpeckers, nut hatches, and chickadees that are used to clinging to vertical surfaces to feed, but bluebirds and robins normally catch their food on the ground or pluck it from trees. I started by crumbling the suet and berry mix and putting it on a little horizontal tray. They took to that readily, but it also attracted the local flock of starlings that ate the food up quickly. I was amazed that the bluebirds and robins started learning to use the regular suet feeders once they decided suet was pretty tasty. Starlings don’t pester the hanging feeders as much because they also feed primarily on the ground. At first, the bluebirds and robins would flutter in front of the feeder and peck suet loose; then drop to the ground and eat it. The male bluebird has been mastering his clinging technique, though, and now feeds much like a chickadee. The female bluebird is gaining skill at it, too, but she still flutters around more than her mate. The robins haven’t mastered clinging yet, but if cold continues to limit their normal foods, it wouldn’t surprise me if they do.
Far from operating on instinct alone, “my birds” have demonstrated that they can learn to recognize and eat new foods that don’t appear anything like their normal foods. They can master new feeding techniques, as well, to help them survive as they wait for spring and better access to their preferred foods. It will be interesting to see if they continue to utilize the alternative food sources after their regular foods become more available. I am also amazed that some birds are bathing in the bird bath even on cold days. It is electrically heated to keep from freezing, but it’s no hot tub. Birds are fragile creatures in some ways, but in other ways they’re amazingly tough and surprisingly smart and adaptable. Most birds make wonderful neighbors. Our lives would be so much poorer without them around.
Steve Lewka is a former director of Story County Conservation.