Never before, in my 45 years of birding, have I spent an entire spring migration not going to a single place more than a block from my own backyard, and during the month of May, I didn’t leave my house and yard at all. There were days when this did feel disappointing—in the past week, there have been a couple of major fallouts on Park Point and Wisconsin Point, and I’d have loved to be there photographing two dozen species of warblers at close range. My friends who have been going out birding have for the most part been following the rules of social distancing and being perfectly safe, but I’m considered high risk on two counts, and I’m living with two other high risk individuals right now, so can’t afford to take ANY risks. That’s my choice, and despite the disappointment, I’m still having a wonderful time as May comes to a close.
Thanks to home deliveries by Duluth’s Wild Birds Unlimited, I’ve set out two new oriole feeders this year that each offer a three-course meal of oranges, grape jelly, and sugar water. I already had one feeder that offered grape jelly and oranges, and I always set orange halves on my platform feeder. I don’t know how much is due to the feeders and how much to the concentrated migration, but this year has been one of my very best ever for attracting orioles, who have been taking all three offerings. Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Gray Catbirds, and Brown Thrashers are also taking oranges and jelly at these feeders as well as visiting my suet feeders.
People have once again been chiming in about why we should or should never offer jelly at our feeders. I try to choose brands that don’t use high-fructose corn sweetener, but when I hear people say that birds can become addicted to sugar as small children do, I want to shake some sense into them. Unlike people of any age, birds that are specifically adapted to feed on fruit and especially nectar NEED simple carbohydrates. Sucrose—the form found in table sugar—is perfectly nutritional.
Migratory birds are adaptable, sampling a variety of unfamiliar foods wherever they find themselves, and they quickly shun foods that have deleterious effects. What odd kind of arrogant paternalism compares dependent human toddlers to adult creatures capable of doing so many things we humans couldn’t possibly succeed at, such as navigating and flying on their own power between the United States and Central or South America?
The caveats to pay attention to when offering sugar are 1) offer it in small enough plops that tiny birds cannot become mired in it; and 2) stop offering it if orioles or other birds start bringing their chicks to it more than a couple of times a day—growing young need a higher balance of protein than carbs. Also, do make sure to offer water, especially during dry weather, because birds need plenty of water to metabolize sugar. That’s also why the standard recipe for hummingbird sugar water is a quarter cup of sugar per cup of water. I up that to a third cup of sugar during cold, wet periods, but during dry, hot spells I make it even more dilute—just a scant quarter cup or even a fifth of a cup of sugar per cup of water.
Several hummingbirds are coming to the sugar water at the oriole feeders, as well as at the hummingbird feeders. I’m not sure if any of the orioles visiting my yard right now will stick around to breed, but I’ve been watching one male hummingbird do his swooping display right above our raspberry patch. This year I may actually try to find a nesting female and get photos.
I’ve read at least a dozen news stories from all over about people taking up birding this spring specifically because of the pandemic. One guy, former Apple and NASA engineer Mark Rober, started watching birds but then got annoyed with the squirrels taking over his feeders. So being an engineer (the one famous for setting the glitter bomb against package thieves), he set up an amazing obstacle course. If you haven’t seen his brilliant and hilarious 20-minute YouTube video, it is very worth checking out. Meanwhile, whether you’re safely getting out to lovely birding places or hunkering down at home, stay safe and well, dear listener.