Meal worms, dog fur help birds weather a tough spring

    When we started seeing robins in the yard amid the snow drifts in March, I shoveled a feeding spot in the front lawn for them. The area has been handy the last couple of weeks when we’ve had heavy snow. A mix of dried meal worms, berries and sunflower chips sprinkled on the ground has attracted a flock of robins, as well as juncos and wrens, even before the last storms.     

It would seem this arrangement would make everybody happy, but there’s one stubborn robin that refuses to go after the dried bugs and berries on the ground. I guess if you’re a pioneer coming north early to get a good breeding spot, you have to be tough individual. Whatever the issue, this robin has learned to cling to the side of our woodpecker feeder and tug fruit and seeds out of the mesh. Since robin feet aren’t designed for this, the bird has to take frequent rests in the narrow tray on the bottom of the feeder. It doesn’t retreat to the feeding ground with the other robins and doesn’t give up its spot even when nuthatches and downy woodpeckers land above it on the tube, trying to nudge the nut job off their turf.     

I felt sorry enough for the mulish bird to put offerings of insect mix on the feeder tray. It eats some of it but spills most of it on the ground where our always hungry huskies snarf it up (Honestly, the dogs eat so much seed they should be able to fly by now.) Then the robin goes right back to climbing and yanking on the woodpecker feeder. It seems like an inefficient way to dine, but maybe it’s better than putting up with chipmunks lurking around the the feeding spot.     

All of the other birds coming to the feeders dine in peace, although there are some quarrels close by. Hanging among the feeders we have an old suet cage that we fill with fur we brush out of the dogs after they’ve had their baths. We started saving the fur years ago when we realized that all of the old nests around the yard were lined with it. The birds took advantage of the furry dogs from the start, culling clumps of fur that worked loose as the dogs ran through the plants and when they were brushed outside. The soft undercoat is a premium product this time of year when birds are building nests.     

Right now house finches are squabbling about who’s next in line to pack up a beak full of the soft, white fur. I watched three different females flying back and forth for supplies during the Sunday Bucks game. I know they’re not desirable birds, but I’m not stopping them from taking nesting material. The robins are the only ones we’ve found who shun fur nest linings. They fortify their nests with mud from the ponds and line them with moss they yank off the pond rocks.     

All of this activity is an uplifting sign of spring, but a quick garden cleanup revealed the winter was as hard on the birds as on people. I’ve already discovered the desiccated remains of a junco and chickadee. It’s a hard life for the weak and old of every kind in winters like the one I hope we’ve finally left behind.     

If you’d like to watch the finches harvest fur, there’s a link to a video on the Port Garden Club website

O’Connell and her husband Tom Hudson garden at their historic home on Grand Avenue in Port Washington and are members of the Port Washington Garden Club. Comments or questions may be e-mailed to mail@portgardenclub. org.


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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