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Stateside Podcast: Winter birding with spring in mind

Two woodpeckers at a birdfeeder.
April Campbell says she only puts out bird feed during winter—when food is harder for birds to come by.

In February, America turns to the groundhog as the animal that signals how soon spring will return. But birders know that the real messenger of the changing seasons lives in the sky. Birds that leave our region for the winter will soon return. There's plenty to prepare for now — and more than a few birds to check out while we wait.

On today’s episode we talked with April Campbell, a long-time birder, retired MD, and the founder of BIPOC Birders of Michigan.

Winter season

Winter is a time when many of the more colorful birds are no longer here. But there are still nearly 25 species of birds that stick around for the winter in our state, Campbell said.

 “There's quite a bit to see, you know, since the birds are constantly out looking for food. And the leaves aren't out, so you don't have that obstructing your view. And at the bird feeders, you're going to get a lot of action.”

During these months, one species you can expect to see is the chickadee, “a faithful visitor to your bird feeder.”

 The downy woodpeckers also show up, the red velvet woodpecker. Every year, I have one that's a resident in my neighborhood. And, it's the bully of the of the bird feeder, but beautiful.”

 The crow, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch and the common house sparrow are also regulars in Campbell’s yard.

Food sources

Knowing what birds like to eat is also important if you want them around your yard. There’s good reason why you might vary the foods you offer birds at the feeder during the winter time.

Depending on the type of bird you want to attract, you can offer peanuts or safflower seeds.

 “Black birds aren't too keen on the safflower … other birds, like your mourning doves and so forth, will eat that. And so, one way of discouraging a lot of blackbirds is to put out a little safflower seed. But I found when they're hungry, they'll eat anything.”

Insects are also an important food source for birds, that’s why Campbell makes sure not to use pesticides in her yard — and she tries to convince her neighbors to do the same.

 “You know, we do have a lawn fetish in this country, and, there's a lot of spraying that goes on. And I've noticed over the years, a lot of insects have just outright disappeared. I used to see tiger beetles, for instance, in my yard. I haven't seen them in years.”

Let your garden go wild

Here’s permission to skip spring cleanup in the yard. Embrace a messy garden! It may help attract more birds to your yard.

 I don't clear up things. I leave the dead foliage there so that the birds can eat the seeds. And then later on, when they come in [from the winter], you know, there may be some more seeds for them to eat. They gather nesting material. It's places for the insects to hide and reproduce.”

Keep a simple wood pile in the yard, like Campbell does, or go for native plants to attract different species of birds and insects. Whatever you do, there are plenty of birds to watch during this season as we head into spring.

 “It's just glorious to watch all the beautiful wasps and insects and the birds that alight on these flowers. And I just let them grow into a splendid chaos.”

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Mercedes Mejia is a producer and director of <i>Stateside</i>.
Laura is Executive Producer of Stateside. She came to Michigan Public from WDET in Detroit, where she was senior producer on the current events program, Detroit Today.