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Birds are back — keep food, fresh water available

May 3, 2019

New bird reports are coming quickly — it’s that time of year.

In the last few days, we’ve seen the return of black-headed grosbeaks, western tanagers, swallows, Bullock’s orioles, turkey vultures and more. The black-chinned and the broad-tailed hummingbirds continue to arrive and are busy at feeders. Lots of birds are pairing off so, for instance, if you’ve been seeing one spotted towhee hanging around your yard, you may now see two.

Birds are busy building nests, singing to attract mates and generally getting about the business of reproducing. Starting a family is tough and burns up a lot of our bird’s reserves. Cold and snow gets our attention and prompts us to feed the birds, but even though the days feel warm and sunny, many natural food sources are still slim. Until plants mature and produce seeds and berries, it can be difficult to find food.

Fill your feeders with a high-fat, high-protein, and high-calcium nesting mix or a fortified suet or seed cylinder. Make every beakful count. Protein, fat and calcium are key this time of year.

The gorgeous western tanager loves water, suet and oranges and will sometimes come to seed cylinders. Hang a suet cylinder near a birdbath where you can easily see it and wait for them to arrive.

The black and orange Bullock’s oriole likes grape jelly, nectar and oranges. Some feeders allow you to offer all three. A side benefit is that sometimes western tanagers show up at these feeders too.

Black-headed grosbeaks, which are also black and orange but have a super thick bill, prefer seed and seed cylinders.

Folks are seeing lots and lots of lesser goldfinches. Some of you keep these little yellow finches all winter, but many of them move a little south. They are back in full force, and along with their cousin, the pine siskin, are busy at your thistle feeder right now. If you’ve had your thistle feeder out for a month or more with no luck, throw the seed away, fill it with fresh thistle and try again. Now is the time that thistle feeding will really pay off, and fresh thistle is key to attracting goldfinches and pine siskins.

Apart from hummingbirds, which get most of their water by drinking nectar, most other birds need a steady source of fresh water for drinking and bathing, which is important for the health of birds. If you offer that source in your backyard you can dramatically increase the number and variety of visiting birds. May is the motherlode of bird activity so if there is really only one month that you can find time to maintain a birdbath, and a feeder, this is it.

A few birdbath tips:

u Shallow — no deeper than 2 inches — is best. Birds are used to bathing and drinking at the edges of puddles, creeks and the like, where the water is shallow at the edges. If you have a deep bath, simply raise the floor by placing a flat rock or flagstone at the bottom.

u Add a bubbler to make the water move. The sight and sound of moving water attracts birds. If you have a fountain, especially one with a shallow spot for birds to use, you know what a bird magnet they are. You can turn any birdbath into a bird magnet by adding an electric bubbler

u Change water daily.

u Place your birdbath where you can see it but not too close to a spot where cats can hide.

u When bathing, birds prefer to move gradually into the water to check for depth. A birdbath with sloped sides is more bird friendly than one with a sharp drop off. But remember, you can retrofit your bath by adding flagstone to make it shallower and easier for birds to enter.

How do birds drink water? A wonderful article from Bird Watchers Digest explains that birds don’t drink the way that mammals do. Most birds can lap water into their bill, akin to the way cats and dogs drink, but then birds must tilt their head to swallow. They need gravity. A few exceptions:

u Swifts and swallow skim a billful of water as they fly over lakes, ponds and rivers.

u Pigeons and doves are among the few birds that can suck water while their head is down. They don’t need to look skyward to swallow.

u Raptors get most of the water they need metabolically from their moist, meaty diets.

Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard and Birdhouses of the World.

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