Meteorological spring is upon us, but if one didn't know better, you'd believe it's been spring for weeks.
While Old Man Winter will officially be gone March 20, there are plenty of signs aside from the melted snow and warmer temperatures that tell us spring has sprung.
In the past couple of weeks, I've seen horned larks, Canada geese, trumpeter swans and red-tailed hawks. On a recent trip to the Twin Cities, I observed singing American robins, northern cardinals, red-winged blackbirds, common grackles and mourning doves. And in Detroit Lakes, I observed my first killdeer and first robin of the year by mid-March.
Indeed, most Minnesotans look forward to seeing that first robin of the spring, me included. As many of us have been taught since childhood, the robin is often associated with the arrival of spring. Other folks might argue that the horned lark is the true harbinger of spring. Still, others would counter that spring is marked not by the appearance of a bird, but, rather, when sap flows freely from the sugar bush tree.
Some people worry about what migrant birds will eat once they show up in our frozen backyards. As we all know, springtime in Minnesota can become very winter-like without much warning -- the Old Man often reminds us of this very fact well into the month of May. For example, many years ago when the Governor's Fishing Opener was held on Lake Bemidji, organizers worried the ice wouldn't be gone in time for the event. And it nearly wasn't. It finally went out the day before the opener.
As such, during springs when the cold just won't go, what's a birder to do when environmental conditions seem too extreme for migrant songbirds to cope with? No worms, no insects, no food to eat of any kind -- just a big empty space of dormant plants, leafless trees and slumbering insects? Yet, paradoxically, your yard is filled with robins bouncing happily about, feathers all puffed out because it's cold outside again, looking no worse for the wear, and content as can be, despite the blowing cold.
It's true that when inclement weather persists or holds springtime warmth in an icy grip, it's undoubtedly slim pickings for insect-eating birds. The American robin, as you know, dines extensively on earthworms and other soft-bodied insects. Yet while the diet of robins does consist of invertebrates, they feed on a wide variety of foods.
Throughout the year, robins forage on berries and other fruits and seeds, too. Sumac, grape, cedar, cranberry, mountain ash, raspberry, serviceberry and nannyberry are just some of the many plant-foods robins eagerly seek out and consume. For this reason, it is a great idea to plant on your property fruit-bearing trees and shrubs that retain their fruits throughout the winter months.
When earthworms are still below the frost line and very much out of any robin's reach, those shriveled crab apples or mountain ash fruits that survived wintertime raids by waxwings and pine grosbeaks become important breakfast, lunch and dinner for hungry robins and other birds.
For years -- including during my tenure as manager of the Wetlands, Pines, and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary in northwestern Minnesota near Warren -- managers, Audubon members and volunteers have been planting fruit-bearing trees and shrubs on the refuge. It has been and continues to be an integral part of the Sanctuary's mission to enhance wildlife habitat.
Crabapple, chokecherry, plum, wild grape, highbush cranberry and elderberry are just some of the many different species planted there. Other important food-producing trees and shrubs include dogwood, sumac, caragana, cotoneaster, raspberry, Juneberry and Nanking cherry.
Aside from providing ideal food sources for birds and other animals, such plantings also provide important wildlife shelter.
Most homeowners can provide in their backyards a few of these important fruit-bearing trees and shrubs. But you can also help insect-eating birds by providing them insects and other invertebrates.
But how, you say? By visiting your local bait shop or pet store where live bait and pet food is sold, such as wax worms, mealworms, angle worms and night crawlers, grasshoppers, etc., are sold. You can purchase these invertebrate morsels and feed them to your wild birds.
Putting these food items into a bowl and placing it outdoors on the ground, a stump or other elevated location will definitely be a hit with those hungry "bug-eaters." In fact, when ruby-throated hummingbirds arrive, most nectar-producing flowers are downright scarce here in the Northland. A hummingbird needs to eat a lot to maintain its high metabolism and will readily feast on insects, including your offerings.
For sure, conservation ethics can easily and without much cost be applied to a mere corner of your own backyard. Wild birds will appreciate your efforts and you will take pleasure in the work.
Even so, if you decide not to plant trees and shrubs or put out a bowl of bugs, that's okay, too. Your robins will find the food they need while singing the praises of springtime as you get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
BLANE KLEMEK is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at email@example.com.