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by C. Frederick

Of Birds and Bees and the Things They Need

I found myself particularly appreciating the return of spring this year. Winter seems to start later and go longer these days, so when the phenological or natural cyclic signs of the season finally occur, we begin to engage with the outdoors differently. Paying attention to the succession of returning birds, when they arrive and in what order, is a fun way to mark the transition of the seasons. Epic robin battles are taking place on lawns and fields that are half mud and half snow. We watch them check out familiar nest sites or prospect for new ones, set up territories and find mates. Migrating is serious work, but in a way it’s only the beginning.  Birds arrive hungry, and invertebrates are slowly emerging and getting active. If robins teach us one thing, it is the value of looking down.

Another natural cycle taking place under our noses and beneath our feet during May is the awakening of native bees.  Bees overwinter in nests consisting of leaf litter and soil or may use intact hollow stems such as those left standing in gardens.  Conservation groups (e.g., #Leavetheleaves) advocate that you leave your yard and garden area messy until May to avoid disruption and harm while bees are in this vulnerable state of diapause.  


A Tricolored Bumble Bee emerges from the leaflitter covering an underground nest at the SRLT Rines Preserve last spring

Similarly, No-Mow-May is a movement that encourages leaving lawns to grow so that early flowering plants can be available as food for pollinators when there is little else.  A recent report suggests this increases bee richness (more species) and overall abundance.  As climate and weather patterns change, phenological cycles and resources can be out of sync. However, because it takes time to establish wildflowers other than non-native dandelions, allowing a section of yard to become a wildflower patch and planting native trees and shrubs that flower early will provide a better quality pollen to benefit the native bees that do most of our crop pollination. Avoiding lawn chemicals such as herbicides for the health of pollinators, pets and family is of course also strongly advised.

Sanguinaria or Bloodroot is an early spring native wildflower you can see on the Connor Mill trail 

Andrena bee sp. at Rines spring 2022

Throughout spring various bird species are busy nesting.  Besides putting up or cleaning existing nest boxes you can do other things to encourage and assist those avian visitors to your yard.

Last spring, we decided to repurpose one of those mesh bags that citrus comes in and fill it with stuffing from vitamin bottles and some untreated hair to provide nesting material for birds (avoid dryer lint which can be toxic).  It took a little while for them to get used to it but this bag (right) had the stuffing pulled out of it by chickadees, Pine Warblers and Chipping Sparrows who made repeated forays in to grab what they needed. If you have horses or a barn with animals you might have already noticed nearby nests lined with animal hair.

You can also put white feathers (think duck or chicken) around the yard to help attract Tree Swallows to your nest boxes.  The swallows require these for their nests and will travel some distance to find them. If you happen to find shed snake skins, placing those in your yard can attract another local breeder, the Great Crested Flycatcher (photo below). They add this unusual item to their nest, perhaps to deter parasites or predators.  Watching a pair excitedly calling and then wrangling the skin into their beaks before flying off is lots of fun.

Over the years we have tried to create a wildlife friendly habitat which has resulted in a noticeable uptick in the number of birds nesting in our yard. They repay our efforts by eating many of the pests in our garden and providing endless entertainment as we sit on the porch enjoying a meal or beverage.   Less work, more birds and bees. A real bargain when you think about it.                                            

Author C. Frederick has a master’s in biology and a doctorate in animal behavior. Her childhood fascination with backyard frogs and monkeys at the local zoo turned into a series of animal-themed careers. She worked as a caretaker, researcher, and conservationist at accredited zoos before becoming a college professor teaching classes in animal behavior and related topics. She currently enjoys working with the Center for Wildlife Studies as a field biologist and co-Principal Investigator for the Maine Wood Turtle Project.

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