A Banner Year for “Pretty Birds”… or a Banner Problem?

A Baltimore oriole accepts an offering of citrus fruit. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

Like many of you, I’ve been marveling at the number of “pretty birds” coming through our backyards—grosbeaks, orioles, tanagers, and the like. My social media feeds are just full of amazingly colorful pictures! Many times in the past several weeks I have celebrated the timing of this seemingly banner year of bright and beautiful visitors to yards while an abundance of folks are actually home to enjoy them, folks who are closely paying attention to their avian visitors, some of whom are keenly bird watching for the first time!

But, in the back of my mind, as someone who is annually tuned in to the birds in my yard and local patches in the spring, something nagged at me: What is going on that we are seeing so many of these birds? If there is one thing I have learned about bird behavior in my decade as a birder, it is that birds are usually motivated by one thing: food.

I had not gotten any further than wondering about this, but then last night, I saw a new blog post by Julie Zickefoose, Bird Watchers’ Digest columnist and one of the smartest and most intuitive naturalists I know. Her post hit me like a ton of bricks. In her words, here is the gist of what is happening with our avian friends:

Summer tanager (an insectivore) at peanut feeder. Photo by Julie Zickefoose.

“This is an unprecedented, grindingly cold, wet and insect-poor April and May. Insectivorous birds who normally tweetle away in the treetops, eating caterpillars along their way to their northerly breeding grounds, are being stopped in their tracks by starvation. Driven down to our feeders. They’re beautiful and entertaining, but make no mistake: they are also desperate. And those who scramble to provide food for them are doing hero’s work, keeping them alive so they can continue on their way when the weather finally does what it’s supposed to do in late April…mid May…late May…When will this ever end??”

HOLY COW. She’s right! We feed the birds in our yard for our viewing pleasure, to draw them closer to us, but birds don’t rely on our feeders to survive. They generally will pick natural sources in the wild over what we provide. Except in times of desperation.

I highly encourage you to read Julie’s post in full on her blog. She certainly is not trying to be a killjoy. In fact, she calls for us to keep doing what we’re doing—now with more purpose than ever:

“Stay on the mission! Keep those feeders stoked, my friends. You’re fighting the good fight for the birds we love. They’ve never needed you more than they do now.”

If you would like to try your hand at making her tried-and-true Zick Dough, you can find the recipe and other feeding tips and information here and here. The latter includes this video of Julie preparing a batch with her insightful commentary along the way:

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