A community newspaper serving western Albemarle County

Seasonal Advice to Help Wildlife This Spring

© Marlene A. Condon

A Dark-eyed Junco, a bird more often seen feeding at ground level, joins a Carolina Wren at a peanut butter stick during a winter snowstorm. Photo: Marlene A. Condon

Many people who feed birds are tempted to stop putting out food when nice weather arrives.  Plants that had gone dormant and many kinds of arthropods that had hibernated become active, making it seem as if folks no longer need to lend a hand to our feathered guests.

But in our modern world where houses and other buildings, built-in swimming pools, and lawns have usurped space that would have otherwise provided for wildlife, it’s imperative to continue feeding until summer is almost here, especially if you live in a city or suburban area where nature-friendly landscaping is scarce.

(Note:  If you live in an area where bears may show up to dine on your seeds, you may need to stop all feeding for a few days.  Such extenuating circumstances make a case for growing a variety of plants in your yard that can provide birds with food when you cannot.)

By late spring, some new seeds (such as Red Maple) will have developed for seed-eating birds.  Also, a variety of insects, spiders, and other arthropods will have become active for those avian creatures migrating through the area and local birds (such as Carolina Wrens) that nest early and have chicks to feed.

However, it is crucial to pay attention to the weather in late spring because cold spells can hamper insect activity, making it very hard for birds to survive.  One year it was so chilly for several days in May that a Scarlet Tanager, a migratory bird not known for eating seeds, clung to my feeder to get sunflower bits.

Not possessing a beak designed to break open seed shells, it was able to eat the nutritious hearts of shelled sunflower seeds.  Those seeds (sold as sunflower bits, hearts, or chips) undoubtedly assisted that insectivorous bird to survive the unusually late cold spell.

Another time I was hosting a Carolina Wren family on a shelf (put up especially for them) in my carport when we had a spring cold snap.  With five chicks to feed, the adults were in desperate straits trying to locate enough insects and spiders to feed their young.

But the enterprising parents fed the chicks the peanut butter mixture I still had out to provide fat, protein, and calories to birds that seek out arthropods for such nutrients throughout the winter.  You might want to use my recipe to mix up a batch that you can supply until the weather warms.  I smear it on tree stumps or fill drilled holes in a stick that I hang from my birdfeeder pole.

I melt one part shortening, then I stir in an equal volume of PB (chunky or smooth) until it is well mixed.  To stiffen up the mixture to make it easier to handle, I add about three parts (also by volume) cornmeal.  You can use all-purpose flour instead, but the resulting mixture is drier and more difficult to spread.  I have not noticed any preference indicated by the birds.

I recommend that you do not add seeds to this mixture.  If birds feed it to chicks in the nest, anything other than sunflower bits could possibly present a problem.

Birds are not the only animals in need of human consideration at this time of the year.  Many kinds of amphibians are coming out of hibernation and crossing our roadways to get to ponds, streams, and seeps in order to mate and produce the next generation of their kind.  Vehicular traffic takes a huge toll on these critters.

If I walk very early in the morning before crows and other kinds of birds have gotten up and started feeding, I witness the carnage that occurred throughout the night.  American Toads tend to be the most numerous victims, but Wood Frogs can make up a good proportion of casualties as well.

The roads I walk are rural ones upon which people are not supposed to be zooming, oblivious to the wildlife that they have chosen to live among.  If folks would just drive more slowly and watch for amphibians making their annual spring migration to mating sites, drivers could probably avoid running over many of these animals.

It does not take long to learn to recognize the pyramidal shape of frogs and toads sitting on the roadway so that you can steer around them (assuming it is safe to do so).  Frogs often jump high and far as a vehicle approaches, but toads, unfortunately, tend to sit there like a lump of clay.  If they do jump, they can make only short hops.

Another human activity that kills immense numbers of wildlife is rototilling.  Many people perform this activity year after year after year, even though it is not necessary and is, in fact, harmful to their gardening efforts.

Once you have improved your soil to the point that it has good friability (it is easy to work), there is absolutely no need to till that soil every year.  You can simply hand-pull or use a hoe to remove spent plants from the previous growing season.

(I am hoping you keep plants in place.  They prevent soil erosion, provide natural reseeding of wildflower areas, shelter insects and spiders overwintering, and provide food for birds and mammals that are active throughout the year.)

Loosen the soil only where you will plant seeds or transplants.  In this way, you limit killing the soil critters that literally make your garden grow well.

You probably know that earthworms provide nutrients to plants by breaking down organic matter.  What most folks do not know is that numerous other soil organisms also help with this important task.

Grubs (immature beetles) of many kinds (including Japanese Beetles), ants, millipedes, slugs, snails, bacteria, and fungi exist to help recycle organic material.  Earthworms and ants do extra duty by incorporating it into the soil so that the roots of plants can access it.

Additionally, when ants, earthworms, and grubs make openings at the soil surface and underground tunnels or burrows, they create air spaces by which water and oxygen can reach the roots of your plants.

Lastly (but just as importantly), you should limit rototilling to areas where it is truly needed because this activity can destroy the structure of the soil.  Soil structure determines how well rainwater gets absorbed, and what you want is for the water to disappear quickly into the ground.

If individual clayey soil particles get reduced too much in size, water cannot easily move through.  It puddles on the surface and ultimately can result in run-off that could take soil and fertilizer with it.

For some reason, horticultural practices have been developed without regard to the natural world in which they are employed.  Gardeners who learn about nature will experience better growing outcomes and be much happier gardeners as a result.

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