Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Feeding Winter Birds Help Them Survive – and Reproduce!
January 28, 2023
By Steve Grinley
A study in Ireland more than a decade ago suggested that feeding birds in winter not only helps birds to survive harsh weather, but it also enables them to have a more successful breeding season. In an experiment, birds that supplemented their natural diet with bird seed at feeders laid their eggs on average 2.5 days earlier than birds at the “control” site. They produced the same number of chicks, but 80 percent of the fledglings of the feeder group fledged, compared to a 60 percent fledgling rate for those birds that depended solely on natural food supplies.
The paper, which appears in Biology Letters, published by the Royal Society in Britain, states: “The extra food we put out for birds contains fat, protein and carbohydrates, which may make the female bird stronger and more able to produce eggs. Foods like peanuts and bird seed also include vitamins and minerals which can also produce healthier eggs and chicks.”
It can be harsh here in winter in New England and feeding birds certainly help them survive. Birds that have stayed the winter or migrated from further north to feast on natural seeds and fruit in our area are finding that the winter supply of natural food is being depleted. A number of birds that don’t normally stay the winter, or that may be here accidentally, are particularly helped by seed and suet at feeders.
A rare, western tanager continues in Greenland, New Hampshire These bright yellow and black birds look out of place, and they are, as they seldom venture east of the Mississippi. Though this bird seems to be surviving on natural fruit, I recall one in Rowley a number of years back that was feeding regularly on sunflower hearts at a feeder. A Middleton couple have had an oriole coming to their feeders for several weeks. Feeders will help these and other unlikely winter visitors survive the cold and snow. These birds may survive feeding on sunflower meats and on suet, supplemented by what fruit they may find.
Bluebirds continue to be reported from many areas including West Newbury, Rowley, and Salisbury. Several customers are feeding mealworms to the bluebirds to help supplement the fruit that they are finding. Carolina wrens are also being fed mealworms, and I’ve seen wrens on suet feeders many times.
As the natural supply of seeds dwindles, with ash, birch and pine cone seeds being depleted, more of the winter finches are visiting feeders to supplement their diet. Goldfinches and pine siskins, and are showing up more regularly on thistle and sunflower feeders. Purple finches are also appearing at sunflower feeders. The availability of seed at feeders helps reduce the stress and the energy expended in finding food for many of these birds, and it may mean the difference in surviving our harsh winter.
The same is true for so many of our resident birds that take advantage of our feeders. The chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, cardinals, blue jays, mourning doves, sparrows and woodpeckers all benefit from the seed and suet that we provide and it helps them make it through the cold winter months.
And if that British study holds true, those birds that partake of our offerings and survive, may have a more successful breeding season come spring!