Bird survival tactics for spring blizzards

A robin drinks from a puddle during the blizzard. (Photo by Sharon Stiteler)

Last Thursday night, April 12, I watched the BirdCast migration radar with a lump in my throat. The south winds were pushing migrating birds north into the Upper Midwest.

I took an hour before work the following morning and walked my patch for birding. Several new birds had arrived that were not there the day before, including American woodcock, yellow-rumped warblers, and hermit thrushes. My friend Sue texted me that she’d seen barn swallows flying just over the water searching for aquatic insects on nearby Lake Harriet in the Twin Cities. I wished I could communicate with the birds and warn them to backtrack south a little bit, that a snowstorm was coming and the already scarce early spring food would be covered, far from their reach.

By Saturday, everything was covered in a thick blanket of snow, and by afternoon, we were in a full-on blizzard. Hermit thrushes followed robins in search of food and drank all the water they could find. Sunday morning continued with all-day snow as the birds looked lethargic and desperate for any exposed soil or berry. Someone on Facebook posted pictures of confused great egrets standing in their yard away from any water.

Insect-eating hermit thrushes fresh from migration have a tough time finding insects under the snow. (Sharon Stiteler)

On Monday, I left to check my local great blue heron rookery. Some nests had blown down in the blizzard, a few were still steadily incubating eggs, but at least two dozen herons grouped together on the shore of the Mississippi River across from the island that held the rookery. They’d perhaps decided to hold off on breeding until the snow nonsense ended.

Early this week, people have texted me photos of sleeping woodcocks on sidewalks, sickly hermit thrushes and robins pacing tiny patches of soil, and yellow-rumped warblers puffed up on the ground. Some people are purchasing mealworms and waxworms from bait shops to scatter on the ground for them. Others are chopping up suet, raisins, and raspberries to try and help. And yet others are shoveling up snow on their lawns to expose soil for the desperate birds.

Migration is a gamble. Older, experienced birds return early to claim the prime nesting territories. If the spring is warm and insects plentiful, it’s a great strategy to get a head start on the breeding season and best nesting location. If spring is like this one, many of these birds will perish, allowing the younger and late-arriving birds a shot at a prime territory.

This is a cycle that bird populations are supposed to absorb. But as we look at all the things bird populations now have to absorb, like loss of wintering habitat, windows, outdoor domestic cats – these are all new things in the last 200 years – we have to ask if bird populations can survive a blizzard during migration like the old days.

This time of year my husband and I work on taxes and I look at how much I spent on travel the previous year. I think how great it would be to be a bird, migrating around and concentrating on just living day to day, living in the great outdoors on only my wits. But tackling taxes in a blizzard, eating a tasty steak and salad while just out the window robins eat dried out crabapples from last fall just to stay alive makes me think surviving taxes once a year isn’t so bad.

So, if you see birds outside struggling and you wonder what can you do, try the berries and bait-worm tricks. But many of the birds that need that food do not come to feeders and do not know to look for food there. They find it by chance or by following seed-eaters like chickadees.

Plan now for our next inevitable blizzard. Will it be next winter or will it be five years down the line? Who knows? The main thing is to look for native forbs, trees, and shrubs you can grow in your yard.

When people think of trees for birds they tend to think of ones that have berries and nuts. Many trees, however, can hide insects and larvae in their bark in winter that early spring migrants can feed on to survive. The website Bringing Nature Home has a good list of tree ideas. If you get the book you can read more about it. Oaks and birches in particular can host several different species of insects and provide an invaluable food and shelter resource.

In the meantime, I’m grateful that I have shelter and unlimited food in spring. Even if that means I still have to deal with the IRS.

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