Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Birds, early flowers indicate it's spring


Although I am dubious that it is spring, I have learned to accept March is like this — year in and year out. Nature is more accepting, though, and its own rhythm goes along, not deterred by a little snow or ice and cold winds. The robins have arrived in numbers, invading lawns in their search for earthworms and larvae. Bluebirds are already claiming nest boxes, and mourning doves travel about in close-knit pairs, undoubtedly beginning to construct a nest. The winter-dull American goldfinches are more colorful with each passing day, and the large disturbing roosts of crows are or have already thinned. Cardinals are back to singing their full-whistled songs, and speaking of songs, our friendly song sparrows have returned. The junco flocks have thinned and will be moving to the highlands any day now, where we may hear their song that resembles someone whistling for their dog (but purer, sweeter).

Large noisy grackles are singing, if we may call it that, their rusty gate call. Phoebes will be busy building nests under eves any day now, and soon the warblers will be passing through with a few species staying the summer.

Skunk cabbage is blossoming in wet places, and coltsfoot is flowering along sunny roadsides, soon to be followed by the better-known dandelion. And around April 10, we will be finding bloodroot, with its pure white flower, and trout lily will be gracing our woodlands. And when April settles in, the forget-me-nots will be covering large patches of lawns in the Berkshires. Look for early flowering plants, like hepatica and trout-lily, before the trees darken the woods with their leaves. Ferns are awakening, sending up their fiddleheads, and in a later column, we might mention another spring plant, ramps.


Q: I am surprised to see a male woodpecker eating the mealworms.Watching the birds, I am learning a lot. I love to see one of the whit-breasted nuthatches spread his wings to scare off another bird.

— Nancy, Pittsfield

A: I am far more surprised at seeing woodpeckers eating seed than grubs (which mealworms are). To be more specific, a mealworm is the larva of a Tenebrio molito, a beetle found in a large family of insects called darkling beetles. They are not native, as far as I know, and not often seen in the wild, but in human habitats and environments like grain storage facilities. Some years ago, I found them in a bag of cornmeal. Had I thought of it at the time, I could have begun to culture the larvae to feed various reptiles I was caring for at the time. For years, many pet shops have carried live larvae including mealworms for lizard, and sometimes fish or bird, food. And when freeze-drying came into fashion to preserve foods, someone came up with the idea of selling freeze-dried mealworms as food for birds, like the bluebird and woodpecker, and other insect-eating species. I bought a bag of them last winter and tried to hand feed them with no results except cold fingers. I will offer them again to the birds, sooner or later, in a plastic coffee can cover or something similar.

Woodpeckers being built to eat larvae is actually a misnomer, as the family is large, and eating habits and preferences differ; the yellow-bellied sapsucker prefers sap and the tiny insects the sap attracts, while the northern flicker prefers ants and grubs it finds on the ground and might be a customer at a mealworm feeder. Most woodpeckers will also eat seeds, and many consume fruits and berries, too. We have all seen holes excavated in trees for homes or gathering grubs and beetles, but at home bird feeders prefer suet and seed.



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