Sponsored By
An organization or individual has paid for the creation of this work but did not approve or review it.



BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Migrant songbirds will soon return to the Northland

Meteorological spring is upon us, but if one didn’t know better, we’re a long way from believing it. While Old Man Winter will officially be gone on March 20, there are plenty of signs of springtime.

A pair of American robins drink from a puddle of melted snow in early spring. A very familiar bird over most of North America, robins can usually be seen running and hopping on lawns in an upright stance.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Meteorological spring is upon us, but if one didn’t know better, we’re a long way from believing it. While Old Man Winter will officially be gone on March 20, there are plenty of signs of springtime.

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.

As such, during springs when the cold and ice just won’t go away, what’s a birder to do when environmental conditions seem too extreme for returning 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.

You’re right about one thing: 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 an Audubon Society wildlife refuge manager, Audubon members and volunteers planted fruit-bearing trees and shrubs on the refuge. It was an integral part of the refuge’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, June berry 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. 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 insectivorous 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.

Conservation ethics can easily and without much cost be applied to a mere corner of your own backyard. Wild birds and other wildlife 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 and other migrants will find the food they need while singing springtime songs as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.


Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

Blane Klemek WEB.jpg

What To Read Next
Get Local