Could it be only few weeks ago that we were experiencing snow delays and cancellations? Although it’s a bit chilly as I write today’s column, we’ve already experienced days in the 80s and more are forecast in the week ahead. Some parades get so strung out that I tend to get bored waiting for the next float, band, old tractor or politician to pass by. This spring’s parade of new bird and flower arrivals has been anything but strung out. There’s been no time to get bored as the parade seems to all be happening at once. Dozens of juncos (winter birds) were fluttering around the yard not long ago. They’re all gone now, and instead my feeders are being swarmed by rose-breasted grosbeaks, Baltimore orioles, goldfinches, red-winged blackbirds, cardinals, robins and even a gray catbird.
“My bluebirds” developed a taste for suet a couple of months ago when lingering winter delayed the arrival of insects, their normal food at this time of year. I thought they’d revert to eating insects once the weather warmed. They are hunting insects now, but both the male and female continue to visit the suet feeder several times a day. Both have mastered clinging to the vertical surface, just like chickadees, as they feed. The robins who built their nest on a platform under the eve of the house have also continued to feed on suet, even though plenty of earth worms are available. So does the recently arrived catbird. They haven’t mastered clinging, so they hover in front of the feeder and peck at it until some suet breaks loose. I put out a nectar feeder for orioles a couple of weeks ago and was pleased when a few stopped for a drink. They have visited the feeder most springs, but often disappeared after only a few days. I hadn’t seen the orioles for a couple of days, even though the feeder was still full, so I added a little dish of grape jelly, just to see if that would attract any attention. Wow! All of a sudden, there were six orioles fighting over the jelly. Some even grabbed drinks of sugar nectar at the hummingbird feeder while they impatiently waited their turn at the jelly bar. The robins have taken a liking (become addicted?) to grape jelly as well, and wolf it down in large beak-fulls. I can fill the bowl with a large serving spoon of jelly several times a day and each filling lasts only a couple of hours. Needless to say, I buy the largest, cheapest kind of grape jelly I can get. I worry a bit, though. Am I contributing to a yard full of diabetic birds?
The first families of little wild things have already hatched or been born. Children’s books portray Mother Nature as kindly and nurturing. In reality, she’s anything but! She might better be described as headmaster in nature’s school of hard knocks. Parent geese are ultra protective of their little goslings, but predators like snapping turtles begin to thin their ranks as soon as they hit the water. Newly laid eggs in hundreds of bird nests face all kinds of threats even before they hatch. Eggs are high quality protein for a variety of other creatures, including fox squirrels and blue jays that live around many of our yards. Cowbird parasitism destroys reproduction (except for cowbirds) in many common bird nests like chipping sparrows, cardinals, catbirds and many more. House wrens and house sparrows destroy the eggs of other cavity-nesting species (like my bluebirds) as they try to take over nest sites. Our male bluebird is an old hand, though. He tolerates most of his bird neighbors, but aggressively chases away any wren or house sparrow that gets even close to their nest. He’s even attacked a couple of starlings much larger than himself. I couldn’t bring myself to do away with a nest of tiny baby rabbits I found in their fur-lined pocket under a lilac bush, even though rabbits have eaten many of my flowers for years. I found a partially eaten adult rabbit a couple of days later when mowing our grass. I wondered if it might be the mother, and, upon checking, found the rabbit nest torn up and all the babies dead. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for them, but know that more rabbit nests with many more babies are close by. I also know that babies that survive will be parenting their own young long before summer is over. Species like mice and rabbits that produce large numbers of young form the food base for the entire ecosystem.
Summer will be upon us in no time. Dare we hope for a few more golden days to enjoy spring’s parade before it’s over?
Steve Lekwa is a former director of Story County Conservation.