Ryan Brady, DNR Natural Heritage Conservation Program Biologist
Ready for spring? We have good news for you – in the bird world, it’s underway! Southeast Wisconsin always sees the first migrants, and this year is no exception as the first red-winged blackbirds, killdeer and sandhill cranes have been reported there. American robins overwintered in good numbers, but new migrants are also moving in now. Horned larks, an early migrant of open grasslands and agricultural fields, are also showing well on rural roadsides. Farther north, trumpeter swans are returning to limited areas of open water, and the first bald and golden eagles have begun to wing their way northward overhead.
Other signs of spring include increased singing activity by northern cardinals, house finches, mourning doves, American robins and black-capped chickadees. Woodpeckers are drumming to announce territories and wild turkeys are now gobbling in some areas. Some species are even nesting already, including active incubation by great horned owls and bald eagles and nest-building behavior in American crows, common ravens, house finches and others.
Waterfowl migration has been most noticeable on Lake Michigan, where goldeneyes, mergansers, scaup, redheads, bufflehead and a few dabbling ducks are being seen. Snow and ice cover have limited migration inland so far, but a few new birds are slowly moving in. Gull diversity has been excellent as herring gulls are abundant and ring-billed gull numbers begin to increase. Among them, look for glaucous, Iceland, great black-backed and lesser blackbacked gulls.
Winter is far from over, of course, and many winter species remain firmly in place, including a few snowy owls, northern shrikes, rough-legged hawks, short-eared owls and “winter finches.” Common redpolls have been widespread with a few hoary redpolls among them. White-winged crossbills and pine siskins have also been present in small numbers. Flocks of evening grosbeaks continue mostly across the north woods, while pine grosbeaks are often the first to depart and will begin to do so this week if they haven’t already. Be sure to regularly clean feeders, waste seed/shells and water sources to prevent outbreaks of salmonella and other diseases among these susceptible species.
Rarities have been few of late. In the south, spotted towhees continue to be seen in numbers well above average. In the north, more great gray owls have been documented this year than any since the mid-2000s. Keep your eyes open for these unusual species and report your observations of rare and common birds alike at www.ebird.org/wi.
Enjoy the birds!
Ten tips for winter bird feeding
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Winter is a great time to feed the birds, as higher energy demands and fewer natural foods give us the opportunity to bring some species closer to home.
- The single best seed to provide is black oil sunflower, which has high-fat content and attracts the most species.
- Also offer nyjer seed for finches, white millet for sparrows, doves and other ground-feeding species both suet and peanut chunks for woodpeckers, chickadees nuthatches.
- Avoid generic seed mixes as these tend to have more waste and attract less desired bird and mammal species.
- Deter squirrels with cone- or domeshaped baffles above hanging feeders or below pole-mounted feeders.
- Place feeders closer than 3 feet or farther than 30 feet from your home to avoid the deadliest window collision zone.
- Minimize disease by cleaning your feeders at least once every two weeks using soapy water and a 10% bleach solution.
- Provide cover such as brush piles or dense shrubs for roosting and escape from predators.
- Offer water to attract a wider variety of species, using a heating element when temperatures dip below freezing.
- “Birdscape” your property with native plants such as fruit-bearing shrubs and evergreen trees.
- Contribute to bird science and management by reporting birds you see at your feeder.
The Great Backyard Bird Count every February is an easy, fun way to get started: for at least 15 minutes on one or more days you simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see. Project Feederwatch spans the entire winter.
Ways to create habitat for birds
Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
•Establish native plants for birds to use as feeding, resting and nesting sites. For information on what to plant and Wisconsin native plant nurseries, see DNR’s Plant native plants web page.
•Provide more food for birds and maintain a healthier natural environment by removing plants not native to your area.
•Provide fresh water for birds. A frog pond, water garden, fountain or even a shallow, regularly cleaned dish of water will get lots of bird use, especially if the water is dripping, moving or otherwise making a sound.
•Maintain bird feeders in your yard, placed at least 30 feet from windows and near the natural protection of trees and shrubs; fruit, suet, and mealworms can supplement traditional seed such as black sunflower and nyjer seed.
•Build a brush pile for shelter from predators and weather.
•Add nest boxes for species like bluebirds or chickadees that nest and roost in cavities.
•Prevent collisions with window glass by using non-reflective window coatings, window screens, awnings, flash tape, paracord or bird netting. Find DIY ideas on the DNR website.
•Keep cats indoors or confined to an outdoor enclosure to help reduce the hundreds of millions of birds killed by cats in the U.S. each year.
•Limit or avoid pesticide use on your property. Pesticides harm birds directly through exposure/contact and indirectly by reducing the insect populations they need to survive. Birds are natural pesticides.