Signs of Spring: 8 Great Spring Birding Moments

Spring can seem a long way off, until you spot a phoebe and see wrens gathering nest material. Learn more signs of spring birders should look for!

We all need little signs of spring. When the wind chill dips and another bout of cold weather shows up in the forecast, we start wishing and dreaming of spring more than ever. For gardeners, crocuses and daffodils poking up through the snow offer hope. But what about the birders? What cues do we look forward to? This was no easy task, but after chatting about it with some birder friends and quizzing Birds & Blooms readers online, I finally narrowed my list down to eight great spring birding moments.

Now, I’m not declaring this a perfect list—after all, birding varies throughout the country. A sign of spring in my Iowa backyard doesn’t necessarily happen in my grandma’s Wyoming garden. But I think it’s a pretty good start. Follow my countdown of some of the most celebrated and anticipated birding moments in spring. Do you agree with my top pick?

eastern phoebe Barbara DivisCourtesy Barbara Davis
Eastern phoebe

8. Signs of Spring: Phoebes Perch on the Edge of Yards

Most flycatchers wait until a few more bugs are available for eating before returning from their winter ranges. However, phoebes are able to adapt their diets, so they’re among the earliest of the spring migrants. Watch for the tail bobs of phoebes near the edge of your yard as a sign of spring. They will nest in close proximity to humans, so their return is like welcoming an old friend back from winter vacation. Phoebes can build a nest on nearly any ledge, but why not make it easier for them? Just as you’d do for a robin, place a nesting shelf platform under your eaves and invite them into your backyard. Check out proven tips to attract nesting birds.

dark eyed juncoSteve and Dave Maslowski
Dark-Eyed Juncos head north in spring, so when they leave, you know warmer weather isn’t far behind.

7. Dark-Eyed Juncos Fly North

The first phoebe sighting of the year is easy to record. But marking the departure of a species can also be an important indicator. For some folks, dark-eyed juncos are the ultimate snowbird. So when the juncos leave, it’s a sign spring has arrived. (Remember, though, that for birders in the far north, the return of the juncos signals the return of their spring.) Other species can also frequent your backyard during the winter months but move on to greener pastures as you welcome spring. Perhaps you were lucky enough to host a flock of redpolls or pine siskins this winter. Treasure those visitors, because these irruptive nomads will head back north, where traces of winter linger.

red bellied woodpecker Lynn Erderly 001Courtesy Lynn Ederly
Red-bellied woodpecker

6. The Tap, Tap, Tap of Woodpeckers

Spring is the season for attracting a mate, and this will translate to the drumming of woodpeckers. Most of us rejoice at the sound of strumming woodpeckers—as long as they aren’t tapping on our downspouts. This is just one sign of spring mating season, though. Keep an eye out around your backyard and try to spot other rituals—a male bird feeding a lady friend, courtship dances, males fluffing up their feathers for females. These are all signs that new life is ahead.

To attract woodpeckers, use a larger nest box designed specifically for woodpeckers. You might add a few wood chips to the bottom of it to make it look even more appealing. Another easy way to bring woodpeckers to your yard is by offering high-fat foods. Suet can be a year-round treat. Peanuts, both in and out of the shell, are also popular.

Check out these adorable spring birds to welcome the new season.

Backyard Red-winged Blackbirds©Eric Ripma
Red-winged blackbird

5. Red-winged Blackbirds Sing

Optimists might mark spring with the arrival of red-winged blackbirds. These folks fully accept there might be another snowstorm or two, but the sight of these early migrants gives them hope that winter will eventually thaw out the marshes and spring will return.  Male red-winged blackbirds start staking out territories in early March, and the females follow eventually. It’s hard to miss the arrival of these blackbirds in spring. They perch high up on the tops of cattails and belt out raucous calls. If you want to see them, head to marshy areas, but be wary, or at least wear a hat. They have a bad reputation for being strong defenders of their territory.

hummingbird at a sugar water feederCourtesy Raven Outllette
Ruby-throated hummingbird

4. Hummingbirds and Orioles Sip Sugar Water

It’s a true sign of spring when you hang the first batch of sugar water for the season. I have to relearn the sugar water recipe every spring, so let me save you that step—it’s four parts water to one part sugar, and that’s for both hummingbirds and orioles.  As these spring birds march northward from their winter homes in Central America, many fly directly across the Gulf of Mexico. They reach the Gulf states in early March and hit their more northern breeding grounds by April. Like the blackbirds, males arrive a week or two before the females.

Aside from putting out sugar-water feeders, you can entice orioles with fresh oranges or grape jelly. As for hummingbirds, it can really help to have early blooms out in the garden. If you’re ready for both species, you might be able to attract them right away. Then they’ll stop to nest, and you’ll see them all summer. Check out frequently asked questions about attracting hummingbirds.

Spring BirdsSteve and Dave Maslowski
When wrens start to gather nesting material, it’s a sign of spring!

3. Wrens Gather Nesting Material

Spring is nesting season for most birds, and when you see a wren carrying nesting material, it definitely makes winter feel like a distant memory. Most wrens get an early start on nesting. They are prolific breeders, cranking out two or three broods of nestlings each spring and summer. Research indicates young male house wrens set up territories closer to established males, perhaps as a way to ensure they are nesting in suitable areas.

Don’t wait for the return of the cavity nesters before checking and cleaning your birdhouses to make sure they’re ready to go for the season. Replace or repair any that were damaged over winter, and rehang predator guards early. You can even hang pieces of dried grass, leaves, small twigs and other nesting materials in an old suet cage to help provide material for nests.

Get ready for baby birds with more tips for bird nesting season.

goldfinch spring birdsRichard Day/Daybreak Imagery
Goldfinches become brilliant spring birds when they molt into their bright yellow coats.

2. Goldfinches Molt

Perhaps the most celebrated of bird molts is the spring change of the American goldfinch. Although goldfinches don’t migrate, it might seem that they disappear from the landscape during winter. The males turn from vibrant yellow to a drab olive green during colder months, becoming less conspicuous. While molting goes nearly unnoticed in many species, the first subtle hint of lemon yellow on the male goldfinch is one of the classic signs of spring.

To bring these beloved birds to your yard, offer thistle seed in finch feeders year-round. Once you get them established, you can put up one of those giant tube feeders that can attract 20-plus birds at a time. As a bonus, you don’t have to worry about squirrels with this type of feeder or seed.

signs of spring, robinCourtesy C. Denise Maples

1. Robins Dig for Worms

Though a few hardy robins can overwinter in some pretty harsh conditions, these birds are still one of the ultimate signs of spring for many people. Just imagine that first robin scampering across the backyard—you know sunny days are around the corner. This doesn’t necessarily mean robins were in the South and are just now migrating. After all, we’ve seen plenty of pictures of robins hanging out in the snow. It’s more about the timing. April showers bring May flowers, but that’s not all. The rain brings thawing and worms to the surface, and that’s why you start to see them plucking up the plump morsels of nutrition.

If you want to be especially welcoming to robins in your backyard, you could offer mealworms as a special treat (the bluebirds will love ’em, too). Another option is to put up a nesting shelf, since robins don’t use birdhouses.

Ken Keffer
Nature writer Ken Keffer fondly remembers the spring duck migration in his native Wyoming, but now he gets most excited when irruptive finches, siskins and redpolls visit his feeders in Iowa.