Wildlife gardeners who want to see the elusive Le Conte’s sparrow should head outdoors in mid- to late April. That’s when the small yellow-breasted, brown-streaked bird is most likely to be spotted as it migrates north to Quebec for the summer.
The furtive though not uncommon sparrow is among many species of birds that travel seasonally along the Atlantic Flyway, a sort of superhighway for migrating birds. It generally follows the U.S. Atlantic coastline and the Appalachian Mountain range from southern Florida to Canada and Greenland. Birds use it to head north each spring for better nesting opportunities and abundant food, according to Cornell University’s All About Birds website. In the fall, when food supplies dwindle, they return to warmer Southern climes.
Hunters and birdwatchers know that each migration brings thousands of colorful waterfowl into North Carolina, such as the redhead duck, some of which winter in Florida and head up to the Great Lakes in the spring.
If you live in the Piedmont, though, you’re more likely to spot songbirds, hummingbirds, hawks and other non-shore species, says Kim Brand, coordinator of Audubon North Carolina’s Bird-Friendly Communities, a conservation program focused on cities and towns.
Identifying a brilliant rose-breasted grosbeak or scarlet tanager is exciting for wildlife enthusiasts, but those who want also to aid birds during their travels need to understand what is happening during migration, Brand says.
“There are some important things people generally don’t know about bird migration, and one critical thing is that most birds, and songbirds in particular, migrate at night,” she said. “They might fly a few hours or all night, almost until dawn.”
The night travel is done for a number of reasons, says Nancy Castillo, who writes an online column as The Zen Birdfeeder. She says many birds fly at night to avoid predators, to take advantage of cooler temperatures and less turbulent skies, and to preserve daylight hours to look for food.
These night flights have led to what Brand calls “the fatal attraction.” That happens when birds become dazed and confused by the city lights and crash into buildings at an alarming rate. Audubon North Carolina is collecting data on such crashes by sending volunteers to check around downtown buildings for dead or injured birds.
“On clear nights, they seem to do just fine,” Brand says. “But on really foggy or cloudy nights, tall buildings create a giant dome of light that birds are attracted to, like moths to a porch light. They can even get trapped in light and sometimes get totally overwhelmed.”
The Audubon Society is working to educate the public – including architects and builders – about the threat so more lights will be turned off at night during migratory seasons and buildings may be designed to emit less light pollution.
Homeowners can use colored tape or chalk on their large windows to reduce the risk that a bird will fly into the glass.
Birds not pulled off track by artificial light will fly as far as they can, stopping when they run out of energy or the sun comes up – whichever happens first, Brand explains. So the birds you see in your neighborhood are either there for the breeding season or are on a several-day refueling stop.
Eating right is always important when you travel, especially if you are a tiny sparrow or hummingbird flying 2,000 miles across the Gulf of Mexico into the U.S. or Canada. These travelers are best served by the tender green sprouts that emerge on native vegetation this time of year, as well as the insects that are beginning to stir.
“During their migratory stopovers, birds will wait to take off again until they’ve reached a certain body weight, so if you have good foods, they will fuel up faster,” she explains. “In the spring, the birds are in a big rush to get north. We think it’s because those who get there first have greater success nesting.”
Brand says nearly 80 percent of the flora and fauna in our urban areas is non-native, so it’s more important than ever for wildlife gardeners to foster native species and the cycle of life they support.
Water is important and a good way to attract migratory birds to your garden.
“If you provide water, you will be more likely to see these birds,” Brand says. “Even the ones that prefer to live high up in the trees will come down to get water.”
She recommends using containers that have gently sloping edges, so that even the smallest birds can wade in to drink or bathe. Rinse the container every few days or so to keep water clean.
Hummingbirds like insects with a little nectar on the side, so for them, consider planting botanicals with bright, tube-shaped flowers, such as Carolina jessamine.
Hummingbird feeders can also supply needed calories – just boil four parts water to one part white sugar, according to N.C. State University’s Agricultural Extension Office. It’s best to change the water every three to five days to prevent mold. Avoid adding honey or food coloring to the mixture. Deter ants by hanging an open container of water above the feeder.
To learn more about migratory birds in our region, consider taking an informative walk with a local birding group in the next few weeks. Visit Audubon.org to learn more.
A postscript and a plea
Bill Satterwhite of the N.C. Bluebird Society questioned last month’s advice about avoiding pressed or treated lumber in a wildlife garden due to the possibility that it may contain arsenic. This pesticide was used in treated lumber beginning in the 1970s and, as Satterwhite noted, was withdrawn from the residential lumber market in 2004. It may still be present in structures built before then, as well as in structures such as bridges and retaining walls. So it still pays to be cautious.
This is something to remember if you are considering a garden structure. Personally, I am pondering a set of natural-looking steps with landings or terraces to create a more layered look for plants on my sloping front lawn. Do you have a project in mind for your wildlife garden this season? If so, send me an email and tell me about it. I’d love to showcase your projects in a future column.
Win a garden kit
We’re giving away a garden kit from Lowe’s, which includes a hummingbird feeder, bucket, trowel, flower seeds and the latest issue of Lowe’s Creative Ideas magazine. But hurry, the deadline to enter is 5 p.m. Saturday (yes, March 28)! To enter, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and street address. Put “Bucket” in the subject line. We’ll choose the winner by random drawing.