Down the Garden Path: Guest columnist series – Feeding birds: It’s not spring yet

Birds visit bird feeders on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022, at the McHenry County Conservation District's Prairieview Education Center in Silver Creek Conservation Area. The center, located at 2112 Behan Road in Crystal Lake, has reopened, to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays and to school groups, after being closed for since the beginning of the pandemic.

During the early spring, bird feeders will bring in a variety of migrating birds on their journey to summer digs. This is before there is much for them to eat elsewhere in nature or in the home landscape. Our current resident birds – those that have hung out with us all winter – still need that seed, too.

Continue feeding and don’t forget water

Be sure to continue your feeding efforts well into spring until the birds can find food on their own. Plan to use up all birdseed so summer storage or grain pests are not an issue. Birds also need water, and in the absence of snow, remember to leave out some shallow dishes of water.

Spring cleaning for feeders

Just like so many other things we enjoy, there are a couple of maintenance activities associated with supporting nature. If you have not checked recently, you may be surprised to find the feeding slots or holes partially or completely blocked by seed debris. The leftover debris will moisten and cake, limiting the kinds of seeds getting through. The remedy is dumping the seed into a pail and doing a thorough cleaning of the inside of the feeder, paying special attention to the openings, before returning the seed to the feeder and putting it back into service.

Other cleanup measures

Besides dealing with the feeder itself, getting the seed hulls out of the lawn and off the patio is another challenge. If you have fed all winter, sunflower hulls will pile up below the feeder. They mix with other seed hulls and can mat together too. You will want to remove as much as you can before lawns start to grow again because the debris can smoother grass plants as they begin to emerge. Raking the hulls out of the lawn with a hard rake or a leaf rake is a good start. Once you have raked out what you can, resorting to a wet-dry vacuum can remove even more.

On the smooth surface of the patio, a coarse-bristled broom sweeping into a square-nosed shovel, or even a snow shovel, can work pretty well. Again, the wet-dry vacuum can clean up the rest.

You can add all the seed hulls to your compost pile or bin rather than put them in the garbage. Birds do a good job just leaving behind just the hulls, but you can expect to see a few seeds germinating if you do not incorporate the hulls into the bin or pile as you routinely do with the rest of the yard waste that goes towards composting.

A great family activity is keeping a journal of when our migrating birds begin to show up at the feeder. Robins, for example, may already have been spotted. What will you see at your feeder next?