There’s something in the air tonight—and it’s more than just a cool comfortable breeze.
It’s a major nocturnal movement of southbound Neotropical birds. At daybreak, expect a fallout of migrants, particularly songbirds, in forests and thickets throughout the region. Warblers, vireos, flycatchers, thrushes, Scarlet Tanagers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks pass through in mid-September each year, so be on the lookout!
Despite being located in an urbanized downtown setting, blustery weather in recent days has inspired a wonderful variety of small birds to visit the garden here at the susquehannawildlife.net headquarters to feed and refresh. For those among you who may enjoy an opportunity to see an interesting variety of native birds living around your place, we’ve assembled a list of our five favorite foods for wild birds.
The selections on our list are foods that provide supplemental nutrition and/or energy for indigenous species, mostly songbirds, without sustaining your neighborhood’s non-native European Starlings and House Sparrows, mooching Eastern Gray Squirrels, or flock of ecologically destructive hand-fed waterfowl. We’ve included foods that aren’t necessarily the cheapest but are instead those that are the best value when offered properly.
Raw Beef Suet
In addition to rendered beef suet, manufactured suet cakes usually contain seeds, cracked corn, peanuts, and other ingredients that attract European Starlings, House Sparrows, and squirrels to the feeder, often excluding woodpeckers and other native species from the fare. Instead, we provide raw beef suet.
Because it is unrendered and can turn rancid, raw beef suet is strictly a food to be offered in cold weather. It is a favorite of woodpeckers, nuthatches, and many other species. Ask for it at your local meat counter, where it is generally inexpensive.
Niger (“Thistle”) Seed
Niger seed, also known as nyjer or nyger, is derived from the sunflower-like plant Guizotia abyssinica, a native of Ethiopia. By the pound, niger seed is usually the most expensive of the bird seeds regularly sold in retail outlets. Nevertheless, it is a good value when offered in a tube or wire mesh feeder that prevents House Sparrows and other species from quickly “shoveling” it to the ground. European starlings and squirrels don’t bother with niger seed at all.
Niger seed must be kept dry. Mold will quickly make niger seed inedible if it gets wet, so avoid using “thistle socks” as feeders. A dome or other protective covering above a tube or wire mesh feeder reduces the frequency with which feeders must be cleaned and moist seed discarded. Remember, keep it fresh and keep it dry!
Striped Sunflower Seed
Striped sunflower seed, also known as grey-striped sunflower seed, is harvested from a cultivar of the Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the same tall garden plant with a massive bloom that you grew as a kid. The Common Sunflower is indigenous to areas west of the Mississippi River and its seeds are readily eaten by many native species of birds including jays, finches, and grosbeaks. The husks are harder to crack than those of black oil sunflower seed, so House Sparrows consume less, particularly when it is offered in a feeder that prevents “shoveling”. For obvious reasons, a squirrel-proof or squirrel-resistant feeder should be used for striped sunflower seed.
Mealworms are the commercially produced larvae of the beetle Tenebrio molitor. Dried or live mealworms are a marvelous supplement to the diets of numerous birds that might not otherwise visit your garden. Woodpeckers, titmice, wrens, mockingbirds, warblers, and bluebirds are among the species savoring protein-rich mealworms. The trick is to offer them without European Starlings noticing or having access to them because European Starlings you see, go crazy over a meal of mealworms.
Food-producing Native Shrubs and Trees
The best value for feeding birds and other wildlife in your garden is to plant food-producing native plants, particularly shrubs and trees. After an initial investment, they can provide food, cover, and roosting sites year after year. In addition, you’ll have a more complete food chain on a property populated by native plants and all the associated life forms they support (insects, spiders, etc.).
Your local County Conservation District is having its annual spring tree sale soon. They have a wide selection to choose from each year and the plants are inexpensive. They offer everything from evergreens and oaks to grasses and flowers. You can afford to scrap the lawn and revegetate your whole property at these prices—no kidding, we did it. You need to preorder for pickup in the spring. To order, check their websites now or give them a call. These food-producing native shrubs and trees are by far the best bird feeding value that you’re likely to find, so don’t let this year’s sales pass you by!
The southbound bird migration of 2020 is well underway. With passage of a cold front coming within the next 48 hours, the days ahead should provide an abundance of viewing opportunities.
Here are some of the species moving through the lower Susquehanna valley right now.
After nearly a full week of record-breaking cold, including two nights with a widespread freeze, warm weather has returned. Today, for the first time this year, the temperature was above eighty degrees Fahrenheit throughout the lower Susquehanna region. Not only can the growing season now resume, but the northward movement of Neotropical birds can again take flight—much to our delight.
A rainy day on Friday, May 8, preceded the arrival of a cold arctic air mass in the eastern United States. It initiated a sustained layover for many migrating birds.
Freeze warnings were issued for five of the next six mornings. The nocturnal flights of migrating birds, most of them consisting of Neotropical species by now, appeared to be impacted. Even on clear moonlit nights, these birds wisely remained grounded. Unlike the more hardy species that moved north during the preceding weeks, Neotropical birds rely heavily on insects as a food source. For them, burning excessive energy by flying through cold air into areas that may be void of food upon arrival could be a death sentence. So they wait.
Today throughout the lower Susquehanna region, bird songs again fill the air and it seems to be mid-May as we remember it. The flights have resumed.
Inside the doorway that leads to your editor’s 3,500 square foot garden hangs a small chalkboard upon which he records the common names of the species of birds that are seen there—or from there—during the year. If he remembers to, he records the date when the species was first seen during that particular year. On New Year’s Day, the results from the freshly ended year are transcribed onto a sheet of notebook paper. On the reverse, the names of butterflies, mammals, and other animals that visited the garden are copied from a second chalkboard that hangs nearby. The piece of paper is then inserted into a folder to join those from previous New Year’s Days. The folder then gets placed back into the editor’s desk drawer beneath a circular saw blade and an old scratched up set of sunglasses—so that he knows exactly where to find it if he wishes to.
A quick glance at this year’s list calls to mind a few recollections.
Before putting the folder back into the drawer for another year, the editor decided to count up the species totals on each of the sheets and load them into the chart maker in the computer.
Despite the habitat improvements in the garden, the trend is apparent. Bird diversity has not cracked the 50 species mark in 6 years. Despite native host plants and nectar species in abundance, butterfly diversity has not exceeded 10 species in 6 years.
It appears that, at the very least, the garden habitat has been disconnected from the home ranges of many species by fragmentation. His little oasis is now isolated in a landscape that becomes increasingly hostile to native wildlife with each passing year. The paving of more parking areas, the elimination of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous growth from the large number of rental properties in the area, the alteration of the biology of the nearby stream by hand-fed domestic ducks, light pollution, and the outdoor use of pesticides have all contributed to the separation of the editor’s tiny sanctuary from the travel lanes and core habitats of many of the species that formerly visited, fed, or bred there. In 2019, migrants, particularly “fly-overs”, were nearly the only sightings aside from several woodpeckers, invasive House Sparrows (Passer domesticus), and hardy Mourning Doves. Even rascally European Starlings became sporadic in occurrence—imagine that! It was the most lackluster year in memory.
If habitat fragmentation were the sole cause for the downward trend in numbers and species, it would be disappointing, but comprehendible. There would be no cause for greater alarm. It would be a matter of cause and effect. But the problem is more widespread.
Although the editor spent a great deal of time in the garden this year, he was also out and about, traveling hundreds of miles per week through lands on both the east and the west shores of the lower Susquehanna. And on each journey, the number of birds seen could be counted on fingers and toes. A decade earlier, there were thousands of birds in these same locations, particularly during the late summer.
In the lower Susquehanna valley, something has drastically reduced the population of birds during breeding season, post-breeding dispersal, and the staging period preceding autumn migration. In much of the region, their late-spring through summer absence was, in 2019, conspicuous. What happened to the tens of thousands of swallows that used to gather on wires along rural roads in August and September before moving south? The groups of dozens of Eastern Kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) that did their fly-catching from perches in willows alongside meadows and shorelines—where are they?
Several studies published during the autumn of 2019 have documented and/or predicted losses in bird populations in the eastern half of the United States and elsewhere. These studies looked at data samples collected during recent decades to either arrive at conclusions or project future trends. They cite climate change, the feline infestation, and habitat loss/degradation among the factors contributing to alterations in range, migration, and overall numbers.
There’s not much need for analysis to determine if bird numbers have plummeted in certain Lower Susquehanna Watershed habitats during the aforementioned seasons—the birds are gone. None of these studies documented or forecast such an abrupt decline. Is there a mysterious cause for the loss of the valley’s birds? Did they die off? Is there a disease or chemical killing them or inhibiting their reproduction? Is it global warming? Is it Three Mile Island? Is it plastic straws, wind turbines, or vehicle traffic?
The answer might not be so cryptic. It might be right before our eyes. And we’ll explore it during 2020.
In the meantime, Uncle Ty and I going to the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg. You should go too. They have lots of food there.
It seems as though the birds have grown impatient for typical spring weather to arrive. The increase in hours of daylight has signaled them that breeding time is here. No further delays can be entertained. They’ve got a schedule to keep.
Thursday, March 29: Winds began blowing from the southwest, breaking a cold spell which had persisted since last week’s snowfall. Birds were on the move ahead of an approaching rainy cold front.
Friday, March 30: Temperatures reached 60 degrees at last. Birds were again moving north through the day, despite rain showers and a change in wind direction—from the northwest and cooler following the passage of the front in the late morning.
Saturday, March 31: It was cooler, but birds were still on the wing headed north.
Sunday, April 1: The morning was pleasant, but conditions became cooler and breezy in the afternoon. Migratory and resident birds began feeding ahead of another storm.
Monday, April 2: Snow fell again, overnight and through the morning—a couple of inches. Most of the snow had melted away by late afternoon.
Let’s imagine that you spend your summer as a singer and you have to strut your stuff in a blue suit all day long just so the other guys know that you’re not going to tolerate any nonsense with either of your two gals. And…you’re responsible for feeding the adolescent kids while each of the girls begins a second family. Wouldn’t you be ready for a break by late August?
The boys must think so. They’re quiet now. This week was the end. They’ve done their duty. They protected their homes and got the youngsters out on their own. It’s time to eat, get out of the dress blues, and prepare to take a flight to warmer climates, maybe even the tropics…for a holiday of sorts.
The male Indigo Bunting (Passerina cyanea) has a busy schedule. Before arriving at Conewago Falls in early May, he has molted from the plainest of plain brown plumage and donned an iridescent set of feathers that glow a brilliant blue and purple in sunlight. He chooses a territory with plenty of shrubby and weedy growth along the edge of a woodland, and begins to sing and defend his parcel, often from a dead tree or other perch.
At Conewago Falls, the Indigo Bunting is a common breeding bird, finding the mosaic of electric transmission wire right-of-ways, railroads, and the Riverine Grasslands to be absolutely perfect habitat. The female, inconspicuous in her uniformly brown plumage, builds the nest, incubates the 3 to 4 eggs (11 to 14 days), and feeds the young in the nest (9 to 12 days). Being quite the showboats, some males will have more than one mate nesting in their territory. In addition to defending the nest(s), the male Indigo Bunting will sometimes feed the fledged young so that the female(s) can begin incubating a second brood. The summertime diet is mostly invertebrates, but seeds are also consumed.
By late August, the young of the year are mostly on their own. The male’s territorial urges, including the nearly non-stop singing, come to an end. Soon, his blue feathers are beginning to drop and a molt is underway into a brown plumage resembling that of the females and juveniles.
Indigo Buntings evacuate their breeding range in eastern North America to winter mostly south of the United States. These nocturnal travelers have been the subject of migration behavior studies. They are among a number of small bird species known to cross the Gulf of Mexico on their way south. Also, Indigo Buntings can navigate by the stars.
On the wintering grounds, Indigo Buntings are flocking birds. At this time of year, they consume more seeds as a component of their diet and are known to visit bird feeders.
By April, the blue suit is back, and the males and females are on the way north. Hope to see you then pal.
Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York.