Gardening Basics

Birds Make Winter Gardens Lively

By Jean Starr

Birds Bring Life to your Home

A flash of color in a sea of brown, a swift movement through the trees, or a whistle unrelated to the winter winds—all signs that your garden is waking up. Although it’s weather dependent, it’s not too early to keep an eye out for early hints of bird activity. Their arrival coincides with the emergence of plants—from Crocus to witch hazel—that attract the insects that signal the birds that it’s time for a fresh food source.

If you’re lucky, you could even spot a bluebird. There is no mistaking them—deeper in color than a blue jay, and smaller than a robin, these once rare natives are making a comeback. Some even remain in the Midwest during winter if they have a food source. Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis) are insectivores that occasionally feed on seeds. During the winter, they might visit feeders with suet containing mealworms and dried fruit.

According to Chuck Roth, long-time birder and owner of Chesterton Feed & Garden Center, the birds seem to be more plentiful in the southern Lake Michigan region. A casual group of Bluebird fans keep him and his staff apprised of their presence in the area, and Roth sees more people interested in providing housing for them.

As with any real estate, residency is based on the nest boxes’ location. “They need to be 300 feet from each other, as bluebirds will protect a second box and not let anyone build in it,” Roth says. “But they’re only defensive about their own kind.”

A few other housing recommendations Roth offers include:

  1. Site the box close to the cover of shrubs—a distance of 15 feet is ideal—with the box opening facing the cover so the birds have a clear shot to the box.
  2. In addition to supplemental food, their ideal habitat includes shrubs and trees with berries that are good fresh or dried. “We used to have multiflora rose and cut it down,” Roth recalls. “For a few years we lost our bluebirds. If they’re used to a habitat and you change it, you can lose them.”
  3. Plant viburnums and other shrubs with berries that will be good fresh or dried.

In addition to offering nest boxes for their springtime breeding, food is crucial. The birdseed industry has come a long way toward increasing their options for Bluebirds. “Some manufacturers are making food specifically for Bluebirds,” Roth said. “Or you can put out a mixed fruit blend of seed that has dried berries in it.”

The most surefire way to attract Bluebirds when their diet of insects is scarce is to provide mealworms. You can purchase them live and raise them yourself, or buy the roasted and dried worms and either rehydrate them or put them out dried. The North American Bluebird Society offers information on the ins and outs of using mealworms as a supplement for Bluebirds during times when insects are scarce.

Raptors Return

Other birds that might arrive in March include hawks. There are two categories of hawks common to the Great Lakes region. The Accipitor, dines mostly on small birds, and the Buteos prefer rodents. The Accipiters include sharp-shinned, Cooper’s and Northern goshawk. Their preferred diet is small birds. Buteos include rough-legged, red-tailed, broad-winged and red-shouldered hawks. In addition to rodents, these hawks’ diets include snakes, frogs, toads, grasshoppers and caterpillars.

When you’re watching birds, it is often the sounds—or lack of sound—that provides a key to activity. In our pin oak woods, we have had nesting Cooper’s and red-shouldered hawks arrive in March on different years. The Cooper’s hawks demonstrated their preference for small birds. On a typical spring day, the birds in our yard could go quiet, signaling a hawk nearby. As we watched for the predator, we saw a male Cardinal that was perched on a wire drop to the ground like a stone just seconds before a hawk swooped in.


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