Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Wings of Spring

One of the tell-tale signs of spring's approach is the reappearance of numerous bird species that have returned from their winter homes. Perhaps you have noticed an increase in bird song filling the air, or you've seen large groups of birds congregating in trees, on lawns, and near feeders. Some species are arriving after months away, and some are preparing for a northward journey to their summer nesting spots. Whatever their direction, most birds are now preparing for the process of finding mates and building nests where they will raise their young.

Birds migrate primarily to find food sources when summer climates turn cold and insects and plants go into dormancy. Many North American migrants head to Mexico, the Caribbean, or Central and South America. However, some birds, such as the Dark-eyed Junco and the Common Redpoll, who breed in Canada, overwinter in North America. Not all birds travel during the winter months. Some stay in one geographic area all year. Examples of non-migrating permanent residents are Blue Jays, American Crows, Black-capped Chickadees, and Northern Cardinals. A few birds whose sightings are commonly considered to be hallmarks of spring are actually both winter residents and migrants depending on habitat range and breeding age. The Eastern Bluebird and the American Robin may still be seen in the deep of winter as not all members of these species migrate to warmer climates.

Acrylic Painting: A Murder of Crows by Heron Kate

Watercolor ACEO of Common Redpoll by Sixsisters

The distance that birds migrate depends largely on the species. The Arctic Tern is the well-known marathoner traveling over 20,000 miles to its winter home in Antarctica. Most songbirds will journey much shorter distances. Most soaring birds such as hawks will travel during the day to take advantage of thermal uplift. Insectivores such as swallows also travel during daylight hours to feed on insects that are active during the day. Songbirds often travel at night; this allows them to stop and forage for food during the day when they are in unfamiliar territory and to avoid nocturnal predators. Different bird species make their migration flights at different altitudes. Avian flight speeds during migration range from 20-50 miles per hour, sometimes faster with tailwinds. Birds use three main navigation methods during their travels: the sun as compass, evening star patterns, and tiny grains of a mineral called magnetite just above their nostrils which allow them to use the Earth's magnetic field to locate true north.

Fused glass pendant Soar by Chauncey Design

Hummingbirds arrive in their summer breeding grounds between February and May. Prior to their long, arduous journey these tiny birds must "bulk up" and gain 25-40% of their body weight by eating a large amount of insects and nectar. Though many hummingbirds travel the same path each year it is said they travel alone and not in groups. They also fly at lower altitudes than some other birds - as low as treetop level. Hummingbirds generally fly during the day and rest at night except when crossing great stretches of ocean when they may go as much as 450 miles over open water before finding a resting spot. Migration for the "hummers" can last from one to four weeks.

Mixed media painting Hummingbird by Mystic Silks

As birds arrive in the spring, they will first look for food sources to replenish energy spent during migration, but a close second urgent task for males is to stake out a territory and try to attract a mate. Research is finding that birds fly faster when returning to nesting areas than when traveling to wintering zones because the need to reach and claim a breeding territory is so important. Generally the males arrive first, then females follow. When females arrive, they select the most suitable and hardy males for breeding. Since the optimal nesting time is short, the pair will make haste in building a nest and incubating eggs. Some birds may breed more than once in a season thus increasing their chances of having successful offspring. Bird song is most prevalent in the spring because impressive vocal repertoires are part of a male's arsenal for attracting a female. Other courting behaviors include visual displays such as "dances" and colorful feather arrays, and building elaborate nests. The males birds of some species, such as the Northern Cardinal and the Snowy Owl, offer food to females as enticements to choose them as mates.

Partners Brooch from Streetnoodles

13th Stamp Series ACEO Original Print Birds of a Feather by Beth Peardon

To bring the birds a little closer within view and help them stay nourished and healthy during breeding season, try setting out bird feeders with a good variety of quality seed and nuts, suet blocks for fat and protein, and fresh water in bird baths. Make sure to keep your feeders and water supplies clean to prevent spreading disease; periodic washing with a 10% bleach solution will suffice. Hummingbirds are attracted to red-colored feeders filled with a sugar water solution, but this must be kept fresh at all times as this mixture can go rancid very quickly. An even better and more easily maintained solution to providing food for hummingbirds is to plant a hummingbird garden filled with native flowers, such as Beebalm or Trumpet Honeysuckle, that draw in these delicate visitors. For a list of "Top Ten" plants for hummingbirds visit

Wheel-thrown Birdhouse/Feeder from Fehu Stoneware

As the spring progresses it is fun and interesting to watch the birds in our yards and parks going through courtship, nesting and parenting their young. After awhile you will start to notice family groups of birds visiting your garden, often returning year after year. Parents will bring their offspring to your feeders, or will make homes in nesting boxes that you might put up in your yard. A good way to keep track of the avian comings and goings in the environment around you is to maintain notes in a journal, either in print or online at such places as Having a good pair of binoculars and a field guide handy will greatly aid your birdwatching and identification. Whatever birding method you choose, or even if you decide just to casually watch the birds from afar, you are sure to enjoy the beauty and harmony of spring that arrives on the wings of our feathered friends.

Bird Resources:

Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds

Audubon Birding Basics

Audubon Bird Feeding Basics

Native Plants for Birds and Wildlife

Bird Migration Facts

Operation Ruby Throat: The Hummingbird Project

Bird Migration (Wild Birds Unlimited)

Journey North


Judy Nolan said...

There is really good information in this post. I found especially interesting the navigation methods of birds, and the fact that hummingbirds can fly 450 miles at one time over water! Who would have thought that? You have selected excellent BBEST representations of bird motif products. So beautiful!

Precious Quilts said...

Great informative post! We noticed the increased bird activity recently too especially on our walks.
Loved your BBEST choices - wonderful examples from our talented group.

yankeegirl said...

What a great post!! We are bird lovers ourselves but learned alot from reading this. Thank you!!

kimbuktu said...

Very nice birdy post, love the items you chose!

ZudaGay said...

I really learned a lot, thanks Liv!! What beautiful birdy items!

jdx said...

Great article. Gives me encouragement that Spring is near.

joonbeam said...

My birds are tweeting ~ symphonic blog post reading! Thanks, fil, for another wonderful feature. I hope I can figure out how to foil the squirrels ~ in a practical manner. I can't feed my birds until I do and it is maddening. Beautiful photo composition. A lovely post.

thewildhare said...

Very informative post, with beautiful handcrafted accents! Great talent on the team, with the promise of coming spring. Thanks Olivia!

Chauncey said...

Liv, fabulous! You always give us so much information and heart in your posts. I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing the birds come back for spring. Except that pesky woodpecker. That noisy bird is not my friend. lol

Liz said...

What a huge lot of birds we Boomers have!!! Thank you for featuring my Crow! Spring is on the way....

Jean Levert Hood said...

I love feeding and watching our birds, it is something I never get tired of.

You've picked some of my absolute favorite Etsy artist!! Lovely choices!

The Filigree Garden said...

I am glad you all enjoyed seeing the birds of BBEST. I love watching birds and hearing their songs. You never know when a special surprise bird could show up in your area, so keep your eyes open. Enjoy the coming of spring!

maryeb said...

What a great post. It makes me even more excited for spring!

Pam said...

What a wonderful, interesting, and informative article! I can't imagine a tiny hummingbird flying over a spce of 450 miles across water. The artwork that you used to accompany your text is fabulous. What wonderful, talented people there are among the boomers. Great job!