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All the Pretty Birds

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

It has been one heck of a spring. April was pretty bad. May was hideous. The weather just will not warm up, and the rain keeps sluicing down.

What did she leave for us on the roof?

Hand-feeding bug omelet to one of many hungry bluebird nestlings. Repeat 3x daily for each box until you drop.

I was tired from a seemingly endless day, another in a succession of rainy mid-May days in the 30’s and 40’s. They have run into a blur in my mind. I usually wake up thinking about what I need to do around 3:30 AM, and get up around 5. Cut oranges for the orioles and make more Zick Dough. Scramble eggs mixed with dried insects and powdered eggshell for bug omelet. Go out, stock the feeders, festooning the yard with orange and grapefruit halves, stocking small hanging feeders with nutritious Zick Dough. Refill the seed feeders, throw seed on the ground. Back inside to pick mealworms out of my fast-dwindling supply. Transfer mealworms, Zick Dough and bug omelet to small carrying cups. Grab a few shots of the multicolored party of birds crawling all over the feeders, then jump in the car to go feed baby bluebirds in seven far-flung boxes on my bluebird trail. At each of the seven boxes, leave food in small crocks on the roof. At three of those boxes, hand-feed bug omelet to the babies, making sure each is stuffed full when I leave.  Head home. 
(This was written May 11, and as I write now I'm back at it on May 20, a carbon copy of that day, pouring and 40's, still feeding bluebirds, but different broods. When will it end?)

Getting divebombed by bluebirds as I approach with bug omelet. Photo by Phoebe Thompson, who helps me on the trail in the afternoons.

On a bad day like today, I get to do this three times. Got to keep those birds alive in the cruelest spring in memory, because I’ve come too far with them to let them die now. It’s not that their parents aren’t working full-time to try to feed them. It’s that there are no insects to be found in this weather. They can’t do it alone. And I feel a great responsibility to help them along. 

Female bluebird taking mealworms from her crock, to feed her young. 

So when I got an enthusiastic Facebook message from my friend Andi in Indiana, my reaction to her good news was not what she might have expected.

 "I currently have a whopping FIFTEEN Baltimore Orioles eating grapes and oranges in my yard.  I have never seen so many in my life! Tonight at closing time there might have been 20. Almost all Baltimore orioles and 3-4 orchards in the mix… Lots of people in this region reporting huge flocks. One lady 20 miles north of here had 30+ at one time—she posted a video or I would not have believed her. Last year I had two and felt lucky to see them!”

My response to Andi’s observation about the whopping crowds of orioles and rose-breasted grosbeaks at those Indiana feeders (and everywhere across the Upper Midwest and Northeast, if the photos on social media are any indication) was uncharacteristically terse. I was far from being happy or excited about a flock of 30 orioles at one feeder. I was heartbroken.

                              Blueberries and banana pieces, with a strip of skin peeled, are a hit with orioles.



Morosely, I responded. “They stop and eat or die. This is ominous.” 

Andi was taken aback. Of course she was! Who says something like that? 

 “Can you explain what you mean?”

“They’re starving from the cold. That’s why you have so many at the feeders.” 

“Oh my gosh.”

An easy way to offer citrus: back to back halves in a big suet cage. 

Wait. Andi, who loves birds and is scrambling to keep her orioles in food, doesn’t realize what’s going on here? If Andi hasn’t grasped the big picture, what about everyone else merrily posting photos of the amazing birds at their feeders? Time to drive the point home.

“It’s got to be an unprecedented mortality event for all insectivores. Tanagers. Orioles. Grosbeaks. Warblers. Vireos. Swallows. Martins. You name it."

“Yeah there’s no bugs available,” Andi replied.

“You’re just seeing the ones that found your feeder. What about all the ones who have nothing? It just makes me so sad. I am comforted that while I see a lot of new birds, I also see the first ones who showed up, and I hope that they will move on when they can.” 

Andi summed it up perfectly. “So, it’s not that there are so many more this year. They are stopping and staying because they’ve found a good food source and the group just keeps getting larger. Oh my gosh I had no idea.”

“Yeah. Most people haven’t connected the dots between the great birds at their feeders and the cold weather.”



“No, I haven’t heard anyone say that.”

“It’s totally weather related. Maybe I’ll have to do another blogpost to explain. I can’t find the time. I will have to feed bluebirds again tomorrow.”

And with that, I literally fell asleep at my keyboard, my finger pressing one keyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy.

 Andi’s observation really rang my bell. I truly am not here to steal the delight of anyone who’s exulting at the throngs of beautiful new birds at their feeders. But I realize that, while I am keenly attuned to the effects of weather on birds, not everyone is. And I think it’s important for everyone to understand why this is happening. 

My first-ever summer tanagers at my feeders weren't here by choice. When you see an insectivorous summer tanager eating peanuts and sunflower hearts, for God's sake, something is really seriously out of whack in nature. 



He moved on to Zick Dough (what he could get in between gorgings by desperate downy woodpecker parents)

 April and May of 2020 have not seen a sudden, delightful population explosion of scarlet and summer tanagers, Baltimore and orchard orioles and grosbeaks. No, exactly the opposite is happening. The unending cold wet weather is pulling migrating birds down out of the trees and to our feeders. 

My first summer tanager at the feeders.

This is an unprecedented, grindingly cold, wet and insect-poor April and May. Insectivorous birds who normally tweetle away in the treetops, eating caterpillars along their way to their northerly breeding grounds, are being stopped in their tracks by starvation. Driven down to our feeders. They’re beautiful and entertaining, but make no mistake: they are also desperate. And those who scramble to provide food for them are doing hero’s work, keeping them alive so they can continue on their way when the weather finally does what it’s supposed to do in late April...mid May...late May...When will this ever end??  

I have another friend who takes the role of gadfly in many social media discussions. He’s very well-informed, always there with a good point. David commented: “Raises lots of good questions like "why feed birds at all?" Do they need our handouts? For most species, if we just leave them the right habitat, they will be fine. Are we doing it for our entertainment? If so, alternatives like bird baths are much better.”

In theory, I’d agree that bird feeding, on the whole, is something we humans do for our own entertainment. In the crushingly cruel Spring of 2020, however, people who are willing to scramble to buy oranges, mealworms and suet, make Zick Dough and fill feeders several times daily (and feed baby bluebirds in their boxes, if anybody else even does that...) are saving many precious lives. It’s tiring and darned expensive to cater to starving migrants, (think 15 pound bags of navel oranges, cartons of fresh blueberries, mealworms by the 5,000 batch) but the rewards are abundant. Knowing that we’re saving lives and sending them on, after this weeks-long, exhausting halt to their northward journey, keeps us going. That, and the sudden flame of an oriole at eye-level; the whirling pinwheel of black, white and carmine-pink that's a grosbeak.



A blueberry clutched in his left foot.

 And as we gasp at their beauty, I maintain that we should think beyond the intake of breath and connect the dots about why they are there. It's not because we're lucky--though we are lucky to have them in our yards. It's not because we're all suddenly bird feeding geniuses and have the best feeding stations out there. It's because they have to eat.  And there's not much out there to keep them alive when it's raining and cold and insects are hidden, dormant. Even woodpeckers, who rely on gleaning insects this time of year, are hitting bottom of the barrel; I'm throwing corn, peanuts and mixed seed along the roadsides for a small colony of red-headed woodpeckers near my home, and they are gladly taking advantage of it. Yes, I drive around with bug omelet, Zick Dough, mealworms, and mixed seed in my car, and I feed those who need it. Mealworms on Wheels. I'm sure all these red-headed woodpeckers wondered how corn and seed magically appeared on their fenceposts...


Well, when you see red-headed woodpeckers sitting motionless close to the ground, they're probably in trouble. 

After a day of abundant food, much of which they probably cached, they were back up in the trees where they belonged. 



 From there, we should also think of all the insect-dependent species who won't come to our feeders—the warblers and vireos, flycatchers, swallows and martins. The spring of 2020, while it has afforded us never-before-seen feeder birds, fabulous photo-ops of eye-level scarlet tanagers, and feeder bragging rights, is anything but good for hard-hit bird populations. Call me a killjoy if you must. I feel the need to ring the bell for all these beleaguered birds, to shake myself and my readers out of our comfy, self-serving ways (Look at all the pretty birds! Aren't I cool for hosting them, and isn't this just great?)  and take a longer view at how weather and climate change affect the birds we love so much. You're seeing it, right before your eyes. No bugs, no birds. Quit with the pesticides and the Chem-lawn, the lollipop Bradford pears and plant some fruit-bearing natives like shadbush, some happy seed/fruit and caterpillar bearing birches and dogwoods, tupelo, sassafras...

But for now, stay on the mission! Keep those feeders stoked, my friends. You're fighting the good fight for the birds we love. They've never needed you more than they do now. Thank you! 

21 comments:

Julie: I didn't think it was possible for my respect and, yes, affection for you and yours to get any higher--but they just have. If either you or I were a Catholic, I'd probably be submitting your nomination to the Vatican for Patron Saint of Migrating Birds. All the best, always.

Great post. We have had weeks of chilly rain even here in NC. While we are not seeing unusual birds at our feeders, we are seeing some differences in migration patterns. And we are filling the feeders more often and sometimes the suet feeders two or three a day as some of the woodpeckers seem to have nestlings. They take big hunks and fly into the woods to feed the little ones.

Thank you, very eye opening...I have noticed more pictures of beautiful birds at my northern friends feeders...I shared your post too.
(Mealworms on wheels...lol,..but thanks for all you do)

Your dedication to these birds makes you worthy of a medal. You are such a big-hearted person. I am honored to have been quoted in this post. I still think those of us who really love the birds have to ask the big questions of what it takes to save a continent worth of nature...and what role, if any, bird feeding and bird rescue should play. but this is not the time or place to examine those questions. Maybe we can have that discussion some time when you have not made such an heroic sacrifice on behalf of the feathered creatures we all love. Warm regards to you, noble super-woman.

Here in Southwest Virginia we are undergoing the same toturous weather pattern. Holding at 40 degrees and pouring rain for 2 days now with two more days ahead. All I have been able to think about is the hummingbirds, baby birds, chimney shifts....you get the picture. I am afraid of the silences and missing birds I will encounter when all of this cold rain finally ends. I express this to everyone I talk to, but I don't think most people understand. Thank you for educating and for saving these precious creature, one gaping mouth at a time.

Thank you, dear Jules. These same sightings for many inAthens area too, at everyone’s feeders. I saw a few dragonflies on a rare dry day and was delighted! I’ll keep feeding as long as it continues to pour. Xom

We’re finally getting bugs here in Maine. Temps are about normal, and thank it stopped raining.

Is the peanut butter/cornmeal mix also too rich for regular feeding? It certainly is a favorite, but I don't want to do damage. Our weather in Central NY near Syracuse has just started to warm up after several late frosts.

In response to another of your posts, I wrote about Margaret Morse Nice and how she is one of my heroes. But neglected to say that you are also a hero to me, as well as a treasured friend. Thanks.

Been feeding fruits and things like never before. I think this is affecting bats as well. We had one out in the afternoon the other day going from one upstairs window to another catching whatever insects happened to be there. I thought then that it was probably starving and desperate. Sadly I haven't seen it since either, and usually once the locals come out of hibernation they swoop past the living room windows from dusk onward.

Julie, thank you for the wake up call and explanations for what is happening with the birds. You are a godsend to your birds and the many animals you care for and an inspiration to us.

Thanks for this, Julie. Stefanie here, from Cowango Studios. I emailed you last month distraught about losing 3 cardinal chicks in a nest in my backyard Cedar tree. Your post makes me think we need to set up a feeder in our yard. My SIL who lives just west of Chicago was so excited to see a Baltimore Oriole at her feeder, the first she'd ever seen. Now I understand. So scary.

And as a PS to my email. I was thrilled to view a fledged Cardinal chick sitting among the blossoms of my Dogwood just outside my bathroom window this week. And while I watched, it's father came in and fed it a couple times. So at least one pair of Cardinals was able to successfully fledge at least one baby. My heart was so full!

Julie, I put up one of those swallow proof blue bird houses and within a day I had blue bird pair. After a week of hard work by the blue birds (Eastern) House Sparrows were in the box. I haven't seen the Blue Birds since. I put lengths of fishing filament around the box, over the hole. Did not stop them. I throw away their nest every day. I know I'm mean but gosh darn I paid $35 for a blue bird house not a a House Sparrow house which I wouldn't give you a quarter for. Any suggestions.

@wildgardener you mean SPARROW proof not swallow proof.
You need an in-box trap, called a Huber trap, and you can order that from the North American Bluebird Society. It's got a little treadle that trips when the sparrow steps on it. The hole gets covered and the sparrow can't get out. Then you are free to do what you wish with the sparrow in the box. I think their website is nabluebirds.org but I could be wrong on that. You can google it.

Thank you Julie for feeding those starving birds. Here in Oklahoma we put out hummingbird feeders with natural sugar in it, not store bought stuff. This year we are seeing far fewer than in past years. I have been observing the insect problem for some time. During the past few summers when checking the yard and garden (we use no pesticides) I am finding only grass hoppers or a type of black beetle. No other insects. No caterpillars. A few butterflies. IMO we need a massive campaign against the use of pesticides. I am old and when I was a kid on the farm, there were no pesticides! My mother managed a garden large enough to feed a family of six for the entire year, plus a large potato patch. We did not have problems with insects because the birds and the toads took care of most of them! In those days a short drive in the car left you with a windshield full of dead insects. Now a long drive in the car leaves you without ANY insects on the windshield at all. This is very worrisome. Unless we stop using pesticides, we are going to end up with a dead environment. I just don't know how we can change the public's positive perception re pesticides. I hope others far more well spoken and well informed than I, can do something to change this situation which threatens our birds and native wildlife.

Can you post the recipie and instructions for the omlette? Maybe even how to feed the blue birds! I’d do that for mine but I never thought of it.

We also have noticed more birds. I thought we were having a stellar spring with birds but after reading this, it makes me sad. We did have 5 Bluebirds fledge 2 wks ago in the cold weather. We still see them around and Mom and Dad are feeding them non stop. They are very healthy. I did check on the Bluebird babies at about 1.5 wks and the nest was very warm in the cold. Mom and Dad were doing a good job keeping them warm. I am going through mealworms, grape jelly and oranges like crazy though.

@SddlFttr, please go to https://tinyurl.com/zicklife and hit PLAY ALL for a video demo of how to make it and feed it. I use betta bloodworms, dried fly larvae, whatever's on hand. Best tool: cotton pliers, available at dental supply outlets online. Good luck.

JZ

Julie,

A sad article but thank you for your insight. One other consideration besides the lack of insect and fruit "fuel" the past two months have had few south, southwest winds that the migrants need to surf north on. Winds have been strong and consistently from the north, north west and even from the east. Fighting the headwinds I assume would take a toll on their fat reservers.

Carl

Thank you for the wonderful article. I do have more birds this year than ever before, I live in PA. You have given many ideas for feeding my birds.

Thank you for sharing this information, and thank you for your Herculean efforts to help these birds survive a winter that just won't end!

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