March is a month of movement for many bird species. The first neotropical migrants will be arriving. Some will stay a few days before moving on, while others may set up nesting territories. They will supplement our year-round species, increasing the diversity of bird life in our backyards. They are all looking for four basic requirements for survival and successful breeding: food, water, shelter/cover and nesting sites.
If you want to take advantage of this increase in activity by inviting birds into your yard, follow these few simple guidelines:
Food: Start now to get their attention. Once we get into summer, you might see feeder activity slow down as natural food becomes more abundant and parent birds seek insects to feed their young. But for now, get the feeders stocked, and plan on keeping them that way through May. If you do, you can count on attracting some brilliant migrants such as rose-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings and blue grosbeaks.
At the very least, keep sunflower seed available for these migrants, but varied food is a key to diversity of species. Sunflower is the old standby, but sprinkle some millet mixture under the feeders for ground-feeding birds. Provide some no-melt suet dough for insectivorous species that may not frequently patronize seed feeders, and don’t forget hummingbirds. Have their feeders up by mid-March. You will likely see a burst of hummingbird activity around April 1 and then a dropoff. Activity will pick up again in late July.
Plant some native plants to provide fruit and seeds for local wildlife. Remember, our local birds evolved with the local plants, so they recognize them and prefer them as food sources. You will also attract more insect pollinators that can serve as an additional food source and generally add to a dynamic habitat.
Water: Don’t forget water! Birds will travel long distances to find it. Providing a source in your yard means your nesters won’t have to travel far and won’t be as exposed to predators. In really cold weather, birds can find food, but if the water is frozen, they often move to roadside puddles, where they’re in danger of being hit by vehicles. You will also attract species that may not normally visit feeders. Not all birds eat feeder food, but they all drink.
Shelter/cover: A busy backyard will attract the attention of predators – mammalian and avian. Provide thick hedgerows, shrubs and thickets for protective retreats and nighttime roost sites. If practical, there is nothing better than an old-fashioned brush pile. Piles of dead branches and pruned limbs that provide nooks, crannies and air space are preferred. Avoid adding grass clippings, which can block a bird trying to enter.
Nest sites: Adequate plant cover provides nest sites for many backyard birds, but there are about 20 species of birds in our area – including barred owls and tiny Carolina chickadees – that require a cavity for nesting. Such nest sites are at a premium, so the odds are pretty good that something will build a nest in any nest box you provide.
Again, choices will beget diversity of species. Try targeting certain species by providing the proper size of box and entrance hole. Try a box for a great-crested flycatcher or one for a brown-headed nuthatch. The standard “bluebird box” is great and a proven producer, but birds have optimal requirements for optimal nesting success. If you have a bunch of bluebird-type boxes, purchase or make some entrance hole adapters to fit some other smaller species.
By following these relatively simple suggestions, I am sure you will notice an increase in the diversity – not only of birds, but of all wildlife – just outside your window.
Taylor Piephoff is a local naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com.