Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Spring migrants

by cathym on March 17, 2020

by Liz Magnanti

Male indigo bunting. Photo courtesy Flickr: Kelly Colgan Azar

Mornings are starting to fill with the sounds of spring, and birds are beginning to be our alarm clocks as we progress into longer and warmer days. Over the next month or two, upstate New York will become a hotbed of migrating birds. There are several things you can do in your yard to make it a haven for these migrants as they come into the area. Many are flying in from Central and South America, so they are on the lookout for food, water and shelter. 

Some of the first migrants that come back are the blackbirds. Red-winged Blackbirds and grackles arrive in large flocks. As they move in these flocks can be seen in trees where they will make screeching and rattling calls. They will come to bird feeders this time of year, hungry after their migration. Blackbirds will eat sunflower seed and most blends of seed. Grackles can become a nuisance in yards and feeders because they can be aggressive and ravenous. If you want to avoid having grackles at your feeders, switch your seed to safflower. Safflower is a seed that is about the same size as sunflower seed, but it is white in color and has a bitter taste. Blackbirds do not like the taste of it and they will avoid it. What is even better, is squirrels don’t like it either! If you want to keep blackbirds out of your suet, consider getting an “upside down” suet feeder. These suet feeders have a roof over the top of them, so birds have to hang upside down to get the food from the feeder. Woodpeckers, nuthatches, and chickadees can all do this easily, but blackbirds cannot.

White-crowned and white-throated sparrows are the next to arrive. They can be found under your feeders hopping along the ground in search of a meal. They will eat sunflower seeds and millet. Sprinkling some millet or sunflower hearts on the ground can entice them to keep coming back. White-throated Sparrows get their name from the distinct white patch they have on their throats. White-crowned Sparrows are significantly bigger than most sparrows and have distinct white and black stripes on the top of their heads. 

As we get into May, even more birds will arrive to the area. Rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings are the next arrivals. Rose-breasted grosbeaks are in the same family as cardinals, so they tend to be found at the same type of feeder. Tray feeders or tube feeders with large perches and trays are ideal to attract them. The males are black and white with a bright red patch on their breast. The females are brown and striped, looking like a large sparrow with an oversized beak. Indigo buntings are more difficult to attract. They will eat sunflower hearts, millet, and nyjer seed. The male Indigo Bunting is bright blue from head to tail and quite striking. 

Shortly following the grosbeaks and buntings are the orioles and hummingbirds. There have been a lot of orioles in the area the past two years, and people have had great success at attracting them into yards. Hummingbirds, on the other hand, have been scarce over the past two years. Both of these birds will drink nectar. You can make your own nectar at home with white granulated sugar and water. The ratio is one part sugar to five parts water for oriole nectar and one part sugar to four parts water for hummingbird nectar. Boil the water and mix in the sugar. Let it cool and fill your feeder. Be sure to stay away from dyes and food coloring, as the birds do not need them in their diet and it is not known if the dyes may harm the birds. Orioles will also eat orange halves. Most oriole feeders have spikes on them for orange halves to be attached to. The favorite food of the oriole, though, is grape jelly! If you are only going to provide one type of food to the orioles, jelly is the way to go. Make sure it is free of artificial sweeteners and flavors. There is a special type of “birdberry” jelly that is made specifically for the orioles as well. Don’t be surprised if you have a catbird or mockingbird stop by for a taste. They have been known to visit grape jelly feeders sporadically. 

When selecting oriole and hummingbird feeders, look for styles that have bee and wasp guards on them. As the season goes on and bees and wasps become more prevalent, you will be glad that you did. You can also add an “ant moat” to your nectar and jelly feeders. These moats get filled with water and hang above the feeder. The ants cannot get past the water to crawl down to the nectar.

One of the best and easiest things you can do to attract a large diversity of birds to your yard is provide water! Not all birds will come to a house or feeder, but they all need water! Birdbaths, fountains, and backyard ponds are all fantastic for the birds. Moving water is the absolute best, as birds are attracted to the sight and sound of it. If you have a birdbath you can add a small fountain insert to it to bring in more birds. Different types of birds prefer different depths of water as well. If you have a deep birdbath you may only get robins, blue jays and mourning doves in it. The large birds like deep water. Small birds need shallow pools to bathe in. Provide a mix of both to get the most bird diversity. You may even be lucky enough to get a warbler bathing. 

Upstate New York is a great location for birding, especially in the spring. Our proximity to Lake Ontario makes us a great stopover site for birds before they go further north. Take advantage of it by spending more time in the yard and garden or join a local bird club on a nature hike. I know I will!

Liz Magnanti is the manager of the Bird House in Pittsford. 

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