feeding wild birds in the spring

Feeding Wild Birds in the Spring: Our In-depth Guide

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Springtime is an exciting time of year for people who love backyard birdwatching. The warm weather brings migrant species back to the area, and suddenly, there are new birds visiting almost daily!

Spring is one of the most important periods of the year for birds, both migratory and non-migratory alike. That’s because this is the time of year when they find mates, build nests, and lay their eggs. Spring can make or break a bird’s likelihood of surviving.

Why Is Spring a Difficult Time for Wild Birds?

You might think that winter is the only difficult time for birds. After all, that’s when temperatures drop, food becomes more scarce, and the weather gets more intense. But birds have excellent adaptations for cold weather! The birds who stick around in cold weather are more than equipped to thrive in those conditions.

Springtime is equally – if not more! – of a challenge than winter. True, the weather may be warmer, but each species’ survival is dependent upon things like finding good breeding grounds and safe nesting environments, successfully finding a mate, protecting the nest from predators, and coping with things like climate change and territory loss from human expansion.

Spring is a crucial time for birds. Let’s go over some of the reasons why that is the case!

Recovering from Migration

Migratory birds use massive amounts of energy – especially if they are long-distance migrants like the Arctic Tern, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and many ducks.

It only takes a couple of days’ rest for birds to recover from long migration routes. In fact, they will often stop for a couple of days as they migrate to recover along the way.

Small birds like hummingbirds may struggle if they arrive too early to their spring and summer territory, as there may not be as much food as they are used to. If the winter season was abnormally long in their spring territory, there might not have been enough time for plants to recover and grow blooms.

Here’s an example: In Indiana a few years ago, we had an unseasonably late snowstorm at the end of April, which dumped far more snow than we’re used to. Usually, our spring flowers can survive small snowfalls in the late spring, but that snow killed many of the flowers that had begun to bloom. It also killed the redbud blooms that hummingbirds often depend on in our area.

Being greeted by the right conditions after migration is so important!

Spring Tasks

Upon arrival, wild birds have lots of tasks ahead of them. They must stake out and lay claim to a breeding territory, undertake mating practices, build their nest, incubate their eggs, and care for baby birds. By comparison, humans usually take years to find a home, choose a partner, and start bringing up babies.

Backyard birds have to get all of this done in just a few short months – every year!

Protecting the Nest

Bird nest in nature
retinue of grass and small twigs of the tree nest tiny birds and eggs in it

Another challenge of springtime is protecting the nest from predators.

There are countless animals that love to raid birds’ nests for eggs and fledglings. Even other birds will predate nests. Just look at the behaviors of hawks and other birds of prey! Other animals that attack birds’ nests include:

  • Foxes
  • Snakes
  • Lizards
  • Cats
  • Raccoons
  • Squirrels
  • Rats

The location of the nest is often a clue to what kinds of animals might try to get their young. A nest on the ground is especially appetizing to rats, squirrels, and snakes. In a tree, the predators may be birds of prey (owls, hawks, falcons), cats, and raccoons.

The breeding success of a bird isn’t just dependent on finding a mate and successfully laying eggs. They must protect their eggs, and later their babies, from being eaten by other wild animals and pets!

One Way to Help Springtime Birds: Birdfeeders!

Great Spotted Woodpecker on birdfeeder

If you offer the wild birds in your backyard an assortment of birdfeed, including seeds, suet, and fruit, you will essentially be helping them survive and thrive in a difficult time of year!

Attracting backyard birds to your yard will also bring you many rewards as you observe all their interesting behaviors!

Not only will you have the joy of watching wild birds, but you will be helping them recover from migration, build a great nest, and raise their young through the fledgling stage.

If you prepare properly for feeding wild birds in the spring, they will come and stay throughout the spring, summer, autumn, and winter seasons (if they’re noon migratory or short-distance migrants).

How Do You Prepare for Feeding Wild Birds in the Spring?

The best way to get ready for the wild birds in the spring is to be prepared in advance of their expected arrival.

A good way to do this is to start keeping a journal of the time of arrival of each species to your backyard bird feeders and birdhouses each year.

Keep in mind that just because the wild birds arrived on a certain date the previous year, does not mean that they will drop in the same day this year or next. But, by keeping a journal, you can get a good idea of when they tend to arrive.

Or, keep an eye on your local birding club’s reports of bird sightings in your area. You can always use our bird guides for each state to learn more about the unique birds that may visit your backyard. Just search for your state using the search bar at the top of our website!

Different birds need different foods, so you will want to know what kinds of feeders will attract each of your favorite birds. For example, hummingbirds need clean feeders that are full of clear sugar water. Orioles want jellies and fresh oranges. Cardinals like suet and black oil sunflower seeds.

Two Weeks Before the Birds Arrive

A bird on a transparent house-shaped birdfeeder

Two weeks before the anticipated arrival of your backyard wild birds, start preparing.

This includes:

  1. Check that backyard bird feeders, bird baths, and birdhouses are in proper, functioning condition. Look for cracks, holes, and any other damage.
  2. If your birdfeeders have been in storage, rinse them with some detergent and water to get rid of any dust (if they weren’t washed before being put away, you may need to do a more thorough cleaning.). Make sure there is no mold or mildew growth on any of these items!
  3. Once everything is clean, fill the feeders with fresh bird food, and fill any birdbaths with fresh, clean water.

You’re ready for backyard wild birds to arrive!

Quick Overview of Cleaning Your Birdfeeders

We wrote a whole article about this not long ago, but here is an overview of some basic advice:

  • Clean your birdfeeders outside, rather than in your sink inside.
  • Use multiple buckets for rinsing, cleaning with soap, and rinsing again.
  • Have several sizes of brushes on hand for cleaning the hard-to-reach areas of the feeders.
  • Make sure everything is completely dry before you put birdseed into the feeder.

Why such intense preparations? Can’t the birds just find bird food on their own when spring is such a vibrant time of natural growth?

It’s true, wild birds are strong foragers who will probably survive without your help. They don’t need backyard birdfeeders – but they do appreciate them!

The spring is a stressful time for birds. Feeding them in the springtime relieves the workload of finding food, which means they can more easily build their nests, incubate their eggs, and protect their young.

If the wild birds in your area arrive in the spring and find your well-prepared area with several different kinds of feeders – or even just one or two really good ones – they will likely nest nearby, stay for the summer, and even return next year!

Some birds return to the same area where they hatched the year before, so the more you do to encourage nesting in your yard, the more likely you are to build a lively community of birds that return year after year.

Birds tend to be territorial, which means you can’t attract an endless number of them to your yard or garden. However, many birds will use your birdfeeders as a safe area to gather food and nest nearby, even if they are a little ways away.

All of this means that feeding birds in the springtime doesn’t just help the birds – it also means you get to have a more enjoyable birdwatching experience at your own home!

Keep in mind: nature does not always cooperate with birds and what they are looking for in the spring. If there is a late snowstorm in your area, your bird feeders and birdhouses will offer a welcome sanctuary until things get back to normal.

What to Put on the Menu for Feeding Wild Birds in the Spring

sparrow perched on a bird feeder

Here is what to put out for the birds in the spring!

  • Fresh, clean birdseed. You may be tempted to pull out a bag of last year’s birdseed and put it in your feeder, and that may be fine – but be sure to check for mold, mildew, and bug infestations first! The last thing you want to do is offer food that will make the birds sick. Additionally, if you put out old, moldy food that the birds don’t want, they may become disinterested in your yard as a spot for feeding!
  • Suet is full of healthy fats that birds need. The cooler the weather, the more calories that birds need to consume to survive. Suet is a great option for backyard feeders in the springtime when birds need to eat high-calorie foods. There are many styles of suet holders available, and sometimes they come attached to chalet feeders on the sides – that means you can offer suet and birdseed at the same time!
  • Crushed eggshells are a great option, too! They are full of calcium, and robins are particularly fond of them. Some people bake them first.

Is Suet Okay in the Summer, Too?

Some people are concerned about suet in the summer because they don’t want a melty, sticky mess in their yards or their feeders. It also can go rancid faster in the summer heat.

There are summer-use suets that are specifically designed for hot weather. These will often be labeled as “no-melt” feed. Note that even these can melt if they are left in direct sunlight all day. It is better to put suet in the shade.

Also, Wild Bird Scoop offers a number of suet recipes on our site – check out our list of 6 great suet recipes!

What Birds Can I expect To See at Suet Feeders in the Spring?

male downy woodpecker eating from a suet feeder

Many birdwatchers have observed that their backyard birdlife grows more diverse when they offer several kinds of bird food, including suet.

Birds that are especially drawn to suet include woodpeckers, jays, chickadees, nuthatches, and starlings. You may also see the occasional wren, creeper, cardinal, kinglet, and even warbler visit your suet feeder.

How To Prepare for Hummingbirds in the Spring

The process of preparing for hummingbirds is similar to preparing for other birds, but there is one big difference: you have to use syrup.

Beautiful tiny Hummingbirds drinking sugar water from a bird feeder

Here is what to do:

About 2 weeks before the hummingbirds are expected to arrive in your area, be prepared. Sometimes, an individual bird or two will arrive extra early! You can find out when hummingbirds arrive in your state by looking at our hummingbird arrival and departure guide.

Why so early?

  • The birds may arrive early
  • If the weather is cooler than normal, the availability of nectar from natural sources may be unavailable, which makes your sugar water more important
  • Other birds, including House Finches, enjoy a slurp of nectar from a hummingbird feeder from time to time
  • Even though hummingbirds get most of their nutrients from insects and natural plant nectar, sugar water is appreciated as they recover from migration

A Surprising Additional Benefit To Feeding Birds in the Spring

For the bulk of this post, we have written about feeding wild birds in the spring because we have been focusing on the birds that will remain in your backyard for the spring and summer months.

But there is another service that your bird feeders provide to wild birds. You’re helping birds who are mid-migration, too!

Many bird migration routes take wild birds much further north than where you are located. Unless you live on the far northern Canadian tundra, there are almost always going to be birds traveling further north as they migrate.

Your backyard feeders can be a wonderful place for them to stop and “re-fuel” for the rest of their journey.

Many migrating birds will stick to one route year after year, which means that if you consistently offer food during their migration window, they may stop by in both the spring and the fall. This gives you the opportunity to see birds that aren’t residents or seasonal migrants to your area!

You might even get lucky and see a rare vagrant at your feeders. This can be incredibly exciting–and even newsworthy in some circumstances. If you see a bird you have never seen before and can’t identify, be sure to document it as well as possible and do your research to determine what kind of bird it is.

You can report rare bird sightings to the North American Rare Bird Alert (NARBA).

Think you might need to make some additions to your backyard offerings?

Here are some of our guides to birdfeeders, birdhouses, and bird baths that will help you see more birds than ever before.

With this many options, you are sure to attract a variety of birds to your backyard this spring!

Feeding Birds in the Other 3 Seasons

  • Summer Bird Feeding: This is a very rewarding season to feed and house wild birds. There is such a variety of bird life and feathered family activity to enjoy!
  • Fall Bird Feeding: Some people think that bird feeding in autumn is not a good idea. They mistakenly believe that their feeders will keep the birds from migrating. What’s the real story?
  • Winter Bird Feeding: Bird-watching in the winter months provides many rewards for everyone. We can’t help ourselves from wanting to assist them by putting out a bird feeder!

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