Backyard Naturalist: It’s a Good Time to Give Birds a Little Extra Help

Editor’s Note: Outdoors Writer Russ Mohney died Aug. 31. The loss is staggering. His writing and insight into the outdoors of Southwest Washington was unmatched. We will be publishing his popular column each week in the coming months from his abundant body of work created throughout the past decade for The Chronicle. This column was originally published March 21, 2008

By Russ Mohney

Today is the third full day of spring, and the season got off to an early start along the Chehalis and Cowlitz. The onset of spring plants is striking, and many are the old, reliable indicators that this spring isn’t just a flash in the pan. Among other comforts, you will find robust growth on red and blue elderberry bushes the leaves are over two-inches long already and the blossoms of coltsfoot are everywhere along roadside cuts and disturbed earth.

Down toward Pe Ell and over the break onto the Willapa, we found lots of new growth on deer brush, pussy willows everywhere, and in much of the new silt on the upper Chehalis floodplain there are billions of tiny shoots of native grasses and forbs pushing up.

To emphasize the arrival of spring, a number of regular readers have called to report the arrival of migrant birds. My friend Sandy Godsey was among those observing the first rufous hummingbirds, and there were violet green swallows over the settling ponds just west of South Bend and all along the upper Chehalis.

Good numbers of birds were flitting about at Hope Creek, another early spot for VG swallows.

I was reminded of another important reaction a person can make to the arrival of the season that I sometimes overlook mentioning. That is the opportunity to put out special food mixes at the cusp of spring. It is a time to do a bit more than simply refill the feed hoppers and thistle tubes. A homeowner from the Ceres Hill area called to ask about feeding for nesting birds, and her timing was right on the barrelhead.

There are two periods in the year that allow you and I to do our bit for both migrant and resident songbirds. In the early spring, virtually every species is in need of supplementary nutrients to improve their success in brooding the summer stocks. The birds will still produce young and fledge them at about the time food becomes more abundant, but a little early help often will significantly improve the outcome for desirable species.

The other period when our help is most important is in midwinter, when native food resources are slim and a lot of residents are scratching hard to survive. That’s when a little boost from the backyard feeder is good, especially in the form of suet mixes to help keep those little internal furnaces working.

The late fall season, when most of the migrants head for Central and South America, is not one of the critical junctures for songbirds. Their instincts have them timing those incredible journeys coincidentally with a season of plenty in the Western U.S.

Springtime can be the riskiest for breeding songbirds because the season is generally not yet filled out when the procedure of courting and mating begins.

There are foods about, but not in great profusion, and those containing substantive amounts of fats and calcium may be especially lacking. That’s where we come in.

These few weeks of intense activity just before the warmth returns is a fine time to keep a clean, well-stocked suet feeder out, and to add some crushed eggshell, oyster shell or clam shell — always crushed to the consistency of table salt — in the feeder trays or in a separate, covered container the birds can easily find.

Fat reserves, along with carbohydrates and protein, help keep the parent birds in fine shape for the rigors of tending the nest and sitting on eggs for long periods without foraging. The calcium, of course, means stronger eggshells that can help maintain incubation temperatures and protect the contents from damage.

During most seasons, enough calcium is gathered from insect sources, but when spring comes early there is sometimes too little to go around. Even hummingbirds require some insects to furnish the calcium necessary for their eggs. Bugs most often become hummingbird fare when gleaned from tree branches and out of landscape bushes.

This week why not put out some beef fat or shortening you’ve softened and into which is stirred peanut butter and corn meal? It isn’t an overwhelming task and could well result in the enjoyment of a few new flying families learning the bird trade just outside your window.

Sounds like a good exercise to me!