Gardening: Extended winter tough for migrating birds

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

I saw birds pecking at the bark of the Arrowood Viburnum (V. dentatum) in front of my living room widow. This native shrub has been attacked by the tiny black viburnum leaf beetle and its larvae the past few years and these pesky bugs lay their eggs in the bark of the bush.

I think the birds were feasting on these tiny morsels. So while these insects cause me great angst when they disfigure the shrub in spring, I am pleased they are a source of food for some of the birds at this time of year.

Spring is normally a tough season for migrating birds as they are hard pressed to find a steady food source, and this year they are really challenged because of the extended winter-like conditions. So though I don’t normally feed the birds I’m making an exception this spring.

Many birds love fresh fruit, and in the cool temperatures of spring, spoilage is not a big worry. Oranges, grape halves and banana slices are all good choices as are apples, cranberries and raisins. Protein-packed salt-free nuts and peanuts chopped into small pieces are another treat.

Fruit slices can be nailed on to a board, and smaller bits presented in bowls or trays. You can find feeders at stores that specialize in wild bird food and feeder equipment, but an old cookie sheet or plastic tray from the dollar store works perfectly.

High quality birdseed with lots of fat and protein, such as black sunflower seed, cracked corn or Niger seed are loved by seed eaters. White proso millet is the seed of choice for many ground-feeding birds. Suet cakes or suet processed into kibble are also good menu selections.

Mealworms are a feast for robins and other bug and worm eaters, but to quell the ick factor you can buy them freeze-dried at wild bird stores.

If you put out birdhouses, it’s time to clean them out. April is the beginning of nest-building season for many migrating birds, and they use all kinds of soft materials to build and line their nests, including short thin strips of natural fibers, feathers, yarn and Spanish moss, so now is the time to make them available.

Small twigs and long pine needles are also good choices. Dryer lint, once recommended for nesting material, is now considered a no-no as it crumbles when wet.

The nesting materials can be draped over the branch of a tree or bush; however, suet cages make perfect holders.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnewscom/homestyle.