Putting out the welcome mat for early migrants

Song SparrowSouthern Quebecers will soon be hearing chirps and flutters again, as spring approaches and the first of the migrating birds return from their long winter sojourn further south. Two songbirds to watch for in the coming weeks are the Song Sparrow and that sure sign of spring, the Red-winged Blackbird. Other birds, like the Ring-billed Gull and the Common Grackle, make their arrival in late February and March.

Why an early return
Migratory birds return to their breeding grounds as food supplies surge in springtime, touching down between mid-February and the end of May. Light, wind, and weather in particular influence the birds’ timing. With climate change leading to a warmer planet, recent studies have suggested that long-migrating birds are returning earlier than in the past. This year may be no exception, as Environment Canada expects warmer-than-normal temperatures in February.

Spotting early migrants
Red-winged Blackbirds are among the first to make the journey back to Canada, arriving as early as mid-February. You can easily spot the male by its black coat and distinctive red-streaked shoulders (epaulettes). The female, smaller in size, is more conspicuous with its brownish plumage, although the white streak on its breast may give it away.

A walk in the woods may turn up a Red-winged Blackbird or two, as these birds prefer waterways in wooded areas. You can also find them near wetlands (marshes and swamps) and uplands (such as meadows).

The Song Sparrow is an early migrant too, but unlike the Red-winged Blackbird, it’s attracted to low shrubs and branches, building nests in residential areas and occasionally moving to open or wet areas to forage for food.

So there’s a good chance you will see a Song Sparrow in your backyard. Look for their reddish brown and grey plumage, with streaks of white on their chest, and listen for their short flutter. Install a bird feeder in your garden but keep the house cat – their most feared predator — indoors!

Feeding and caring for returning songbirds
Here are some simple steps you can take to feed and care for early migrant songbirds.

  • Get the bird house ready: clean it out and lay down some fresh straw.
  • Birds that tend to return early in the spring are often seed-eaters: leave sunflower seeds, millet and corn in the feeder. The Song Sparrow in particular prefers small seeds.
  • Provide birds with a water bath: use a shallow pan and change the water every day. Place a few branches around the pan so birds can keep themselves dry while drinking. You can add a bird-bath heater to keep ice from forming in freezing temperatures.
  • Proof your windows against accidental collisions: territorial males may mistake their own reflection for a rival. You can either use a yellow highlighter to mark small x’s on the inside of your window (birds can see ultraviolet light and will avoid the markings) or spray the outside with diluted dish soap.

Other early arrivals like Ring-billed Gulls and Common Grackles are opportunistic feeders who tend to forage in large flocks. Ring-billed Gulls will visit any surface, including landfills, as long as there is food nearby. These gulls, which sport a yellow bill with a black ring and grey wings over their white body, enjoy road kill, earthworms, insects and smelt.

Common Grackles are blackbirds with a long tail and iridescent plumage that you will often see in open areas, such as parks, fields, marshes and your front lawn. They like a mixture of grains and seeds, but because they will dominate smaller birds at the feeder, it’s best to scatter the grains or seeds on the ground.

Did you know?
The male Red-winged Blackbird returns from the south before its female counterpart to establish territory to entice the female into mating.

Sources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, BBC