Listen: Spring migration is finally underway


Finally, spring has arrived. Forsythias, hyacinths and daffodils are blooming, lilacs are budding, and the grass soon needs mowing.

And of course, spring migration is under way. And my email box is filled with notes from readers who love warmer days, blue skies, and sunshine. Let’s compare notes, and see how our observations compare.

Typically spring migrants return in three waves. The first appears in late February or early March. This group includes killdeer, eastern phoebes, eastern towhees, and Louisiana waterthrushes.

This year, however, only killdeer made an early appearance. It was probably those intermittent March snowfalls that kept other early migrants at bay. On March 25 I found eight inches of heavy wet snow in the backyard. Earlier this month the stragglers began to arrive.

Sounds of spring

Eastern phoebes returned on April 4 (this name-sayer sings a buzzy, “Fee-bee!”), chipping sparrows on April 9 (listen for a high pitched monotone trill in well manicured backyards), field sparrows on April 10 (a series of pure whistles that accelerates like a bouncing ping pong ball), and towhees on April 11 (“Drink your tea!”).

Mid-to-late April brings the second wave of spring migrants. I’m expecting my first ruby-throated hummingbird by the time you read this.Track their return at, and be sure to report your first hummers of the year. If you don’t have a nectar feeder up yet, do it today. (One part sugar with four parts boiling water, cool, then refrigerate.)

Nectar can also be used to attract a variety of insects that attract a variety of birds. An insect feeder is simple to set up.Start with some hummingbird nectar. Add some stale pancake syrup, juice from canned fruit and blend the mixture with a soft, over-ripe banana.Feeding birds. Place a small container of this sweet cocktail on a tray feeder. You may want to put this feeder in a far corner of the yard because it will attract bees and wasps as well as myriad other insects. And shortly after the insects arrive, so will the birds.

Virtually all nesting birds feed their nestlings insects (except finches), so expect to see almost any bird at an insect feeder during the nesting season. Because spring migration is underway, the array of birds that visit will change over the next six weeks.

Even hummingbirds will hover above the slurry and pick off gnats, fruit flies and other soft-bodied insects. Over the next 10 days, watch and listen for blue-headed vireos, white-eyed vireos, yellow warblers (“Sweet, sweet, sweet, I’m so sweet”), blue-winged warblers (“Bee-buzz!”), ovenbirds (“Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!”), brown thrashers (a wild variety of notes usually uttered twice), gray catbirds (listen for the distinctive, “Mew”), Baltimore orioles (a loud pure whistled song), chimney swifts, barn swallows, and tree swallows.

In early May, look for the third wave of migrants. House wrens, red-eyed vireos, common yellowthroats, scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and indigo buntings will brighten backyards. If you need a reason to keep one seed feeder filled in the spring, the brilliantly colored grosbeaks and buntings love sunflower seeds.

Serve mealworms

To attract other migrants to the backyard, offer live mealworms. Almost every songbird loves them. And after eggs hatch, mealworms are an easy food for parents to feed nestlings. Mealworms can be purchased at wild bird stores, bait shops, and a variety of online outlets.

Buy a few thousand to get started, then grow your own. For a free copy of instructions for raising mealworms contact me via email. For a hard copy, mail $2 and a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the address below.

Finally, be sure to offer a flat saucer of fresh water for drinking and bathing every day. It will be the busiest spot in your backyard. The highlight of spring migration for me will occur sometime between April 25 and May 4.I’ll wake up one morning and hear the sweet flute-like notes of a wood thrush rising from the woods. They’ll sing all day, every day, for the next eight weeks or so.

And as the sun sets, I’ll smile as they sing vespers to remind me that it’s time to listen for owls and whip-poor-wills.


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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at or contact him directly at or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.



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