Bird Watcher's General Store

Things To Do Come Spring - 03/21/08


Dear Bird Folks,

I've read that if I want to attract hummingbirds I should put my feeders out early. What exactly does "early" mean? It's March now and still pretty cold around here. Is March too early to put out a hummingbird feeder? It sure seems early to me.

- Brenda, Rutland, MA

It seems early to me, too, Brenda,

It seems like March is too early for hummingbirds to be in New England and that's because it is, and the hummingbirds know it. Hummingbirds are more than happy to let the redwings and the robins deal with our crazy March weather, while they slowly work their way up from Central America. Hummers watch the news. They saw all those people freezing at the St. Patrick's parade. They'll stay where it's warm and let us crazy Northerners deal with the frigid weather and the green beer.

When compared to other spring migrants, the ruby-throat's migration is a bit slower. They can only go as fast as their food supply (spring flowers and tree sap) allows them to. Right now, the middle of March, the people in Alabama and Mississippi are welcoming back the hummers, while we still face the possibility of waking up to six to eight inches on our driveways. The people in the Northeast won't see hummingbirds for another month or so; the last week of April is about the earliest that we can expect to see any returning hummingbirds. Any hummers that arrive before then are probably loaded with green beer and should be avoided. They are the last birds you want flying over your head.

Now that I've answered your question, Brenda, with your permission I'm going to address some of the other spring questions that always seem to pop up in March. I used to think that answering an assortment of common questions in single column would save me from having to answer the same questions over and over, but it never works out that way. I still get the same questions, over and over, but I don't mind. It makes me feel important. And besides, the more I answer the same question the more likely I am to actually know the answer. So, it all works out.

When should we put up a birdhouse?

This one is easy. Now. Now, is the time to put up a birdhouse. Actually, there is never a wrong time to put one up. Some birds will use birdhouses in the winter to roost in. However, March is when many birds start investigating possible nest sites. Chickadees and bluebirds have already begun checking out boxes. If you haven't done so already, March is also a good time to repair and clean out last year's boxes. In late fall mice and bees will sometimes move into our nest boxes. I'm not saying that you have to kick out these seasonal squatters. That's up to you. In fact, I would rather you let them stay in the box; that way you'll have to come to me to buy a new one. Yea, bees and mice!

What is the proper placement for a new birdhouse?

This one isn't quite as cut and dry. Some birds, such as bluebirds and Tree Swallows, like to nest in the open. Chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches are okay living among the trees. Then there are those crazy House Wrens that love to be near our dwellings. You probably could mount a birdhouse on top of your TV and still attract a House Wren to use it. Even though there are variables, I usually tell people to mount their birdhouse on a post or on an isolated tree. I put my boxes about five feet off the ground, with the entry hole facing the kitchen window. That way I can see the activity as the parents feed their nestlings. I know there are those who say that a box should face south or west or some specific direction. Sure, you can do that, but you can also put your box in a field in Wyoming. Where's the fun if you can't see the action? Face it toward the kitchen window.

What is the formula for hummingbird food?

Oh, I see we are back to hummingbirds again. No problem. This one is simple. It is four parts water to one part sugar. So, take a cup of water, add a 1/4 cup of sugar, stir, and you are done. The exact formula isn't critical; a bit too sweet or a touch too watery won't bother the birds. The most important thing is to change the solution every few days. If the birds arrive at your feeder and the food is spoiled, they may never come back. Can you blame them?

How about those orioles?

Finally, we can't talk about the coming of spring backyard birds without mentioning orioles. The orioles arrive about a week or so after the hummingbirds show up. Around here that means the first week in May. They will drink the same four-to-one sugar-water solution that the hummers drink. They also love oranges cut in half, and seem to really like grape jelly. Grape jelly in a cup works great, but forget the peanut butter. One beakful of peanut butter and the poor bird won't be able to sing for a week.


Artwork by Catherine Clark


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