Simple Ways to Support Spring Bird Migration 

The snow is melting, the sky is often blue and the weather seems to be warming up. Spring is the perfect time to spot both local and migrating birds, as well as plan for the upcoming year’s sustainable changes. Plants, feeders, birdhouses and even a few small alterations in our daily habits can go a long way in supporting the livelihood and diversity of nearby bird species.  

Whether you live in the woods or in the city, make your own environment biodiverse and bird friendly this season by following some of these simple tips.  

The American Robin (Turdus migratorius) is often considered a harbinger of spring in the Northeast, but many actually stick around all winter! © Rob Curtis/VIREO

Plant some favorite foliage. 

Migrators are not only wonderful harbingers of spring, but also great helpers with insect control and pollination. Consider adding some native shrubs or even a tree that will attract many different species of birds and make your space a bit more sustainable.  

Tall native trees such as oak, hickory or beech are popular song-bird attractors and provide much-needed nesting opportunities and materials, as well as shelter. For more immediate results, however, consider planting a native shrub, such as viburnum, allspice or oakleaf hydrangea, or a smaller and fast-growing tree, such as redbud, serviceberry, birch or dogwood. These plants not only offer additional protection and food sources to smaller birds, but also have lovely blooms in the spring. As a bonus, the extra shade can help with naturally cooling your home in the summer. 

And for those who live in more urban environments, remember that hanging flower baskets, standing pots and window boxes all go a long way to help provide protection, nesting material and even food sources for birds. 

Leave the leaves and the dead flowers. 

If you make your garden and yard habitat friendly for bugs, you also make it friendly for birds. Remember to mulch the ground with leaf litter, fallen branches, grasses, hay or even wood mulch — and simply leave it be, even into the summer. Migrating birds, like towhees, warblers and some thrushes, use these piles of litter to find their insect food sources while the dead leaves and sticks can provide potential nesting material when the warmer days arrive.

Be sure to keep last year’s flower stalks and grasses standing throughout the season to help provide seeds and overwintering locations for certain bugs. You’ll be surprised by the diversity of avian visitors who stop by for a bite to eat! 

Turn your lights out! 

Collisions occur when a bird tries to fly through a window that seems transparent or when the glass surface reflects the surrounding landscape. According to Bird Safe Philly, up to 1 billion birds are estimated to collide with buildings and other human-made structures like residential homes in the U.S. every year. Most of these collisions — which can occur either day or night — are fatal.   

At night, simply turning off your inside lights or closing your shades, curtains or blinds will help prevent migrators from seeing through your windows. Keep any external lights on a motion sensor and direct them downwards to reduce their impact.  

Reduce reflectivity and make your windows opaque.  

For those sunny hours, apply adhesives, stickers or tempera paint in a dense pattern, such as stripes or dots, on the outer surface of your windows to deter our feathered friends from colliding. Commercially designed and ready-to-use products are also available, or you can create your own solution with materials such as paper, tape, stickers, paint and markers. Be sure to follow the recommendation: no open spaces that are larger than 2 x 2 inches and no spaces wider than 4 inches apart.  

The Ruby-crowned Kinglet is a winter visitor who departs in spring for more northern, colder climes. © Brian E. Small/VIREO

Protect birdhouses and feeders from predators. 

Even if we can’t see it, predators constantly exist for many smaller birds, as well as their nests and hatchlings. From the ground, they fear raccoons and snakes; the sky brings hawks and owls. Even our pets can negatively impact migrating bird populations — it is estimated that over a billion birds die each year in the U.S. from domestic cats.  

For birdhouses, provide baffles, cages or guards to protect the tenants. Keep the entrance hole appropriately sized for the specific bird you want to invite — too large and the nest is at risk. Also consider whether a starling-resistant hole, or one placed at the bottom of the house, is an option. 

Be sure to keep your beloved furry friends away from feeders and other areas where birds usually congregate. To help reduce harmful predatory encounters, especially for native, uncommon and visiting birds, consider keeping your cat indoors to watch from afar. And to keep those visiting birds in your backyard, also try walking your dog around the block on a leash for their exercise more often. 

Offer specific seed types.  

There is a good case for feeding local and migrating bird populations if you pay attention to the timing, species, location and quality of food. Some studies have shown that birds who make it through the winter or their long travels in decent physical condition will see an improved nesting season to follow. Providing food for birds can help increase egg clutches, produce higher chick weights and support overall breeding success across a wide range of species.  

Offer targeted, high-quality seeds to increase the survival rates of exhausted migratory and overwintering birds. Mealworms are a protein-dense option for your local titmice, wrens and nuthatches — and especially attractive to bluebirds. Oats and cracked corn are great for doves, ducks and quail. Sunflower seeds, either hulled or black oiled, will certainly draw a crowd that usually includes cardinals, sparrows, woodpeckers, house finches and chickadees. Suet can be hung in your yard and enjoyed by a wide diversity of birds. Be sure to keep stored seeds dry to prevent mold and rot! 

The Red-winged Blackbird is a common, nomadic winter resident often thought of as spring arrival. © Garth McElroy/VIREO

Keep feeders within 3 feet of any structure or keep them 30 feet away. 

Moving your feeders to within 3 feet of the house or keeping them at least 30 feet away can also help reduce accidental collisions with windows. When feeders are close to a window, birds cannot gain enough momentum to do harm if they strike the glass. When far enough away, birds will naturally avoid the potential danger zone when feeding. Anything in-between, however, can be problematic, so consider your feeder location carefully. 
 

Add a variety of feeders and birdhouses. 

Determining which species of birds live in your area and during which seasons will narrow your choices of which bird feeders and houses to consider. The National Audubon Society, which has chapters in most states including Audubon Pennsylvania and New Jersey Audubon, are great places to start your research if you live in the Philadelphia area. 

Doves, towhees and sparrows like to keep a low profile while eating; offer your seed directly on the ground. On the other hand, woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees prefer to hang out, so consider a dangling suet cage for these visitors. Tube feeders, both large and small, help minimize the monopolizers such as blue jays and grackles.    

If you’re considering adding a new home, locate the bird house 4 to 10 feet off the ground near walls but away from walkways for finches. Position a bluebird shelter 5 to 10 feet above the ground, facing an open area away from human movement. Most owls like to be near forested areas and prefer their housing to be 10 to 30 feet off the ground in a tree. Colonial nesters, like purple martins, require a group setting, so be sure to offer these kinds of birds several cavities in a single house at least 12 feet high. 

White-throated Sparrows depart at the end of winter with their sweet calls for the North. © Brian E. Small/VIREO

Don’t forget clean water. 

Like all other creatures, birds need to drink water all year round. Consider providing a birdbath. Place rocks or stones — large enough to stick out above the water level — in the bath to prevent ice formation and help birds keep their feathers dry while sipping. Be sure to rinse, clean and refill your birdbath regularly.  

Get involved! 

The more we know, the better we can understand local and visiting birds and the challenges they face from weather, loss of habitat, climate change, predation and collisions. Set up a feeder and join the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch. Learn more about spring migration at BirdCast

Have an unknown visitor? You can use Visual Resources for Ornithology (VIREO), the worldwide bird photograph collection of the Academy of Natural Sciences, to help you identify your bird sightings. More than 700 photographers from around the world have contributed to VIREO, with over 100,000 images accessible online for educational, scientific and commercial use for students, birders and researchers alike. 

Featured image: Baltimore Oriole © Johann Schumacher/VIREO

3 comments

  1. I’d like to put seed and suet out at our summer place which we visit in late winter and early spring, but it also has bears. We do have mixed forest, garden and specimen trees on our property. Do you have a suggestion for birdseed placement that won’t attract the bears?

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