Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Bird Feeders Aids in Bird Survival and Breeding
January 14, 2022
by Steve Grinley
A past study conducted in Ireland 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 a harsh winter here 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 may find that the winter supply of natural food may be depleted. Seed and suet at feeders particularly help a number of birds that don’t normally stay the winter, or that may be here accidentally.
A rare yellow-throated warbler was visiting a feeder in Ipswich last month and was feeding on sunflower hearts. That source of fat and protein certainly helped that bird during some cold days and nights. It also supplemented its diet with the suet that was available.
An Eastern towhee is visiting a feeder in Westminster, a summer tanager is feeding on raisins in Sunderland in western Massachusetts, and Baltimore orioles are visiting feeders on Cape Cod. Orioles and tanagers have visited some feeders in our area over the years. They often survive by feeding on sunflower meats and on suet, supplemented by what fruit they may find.
I have received numerous calls in recent weeks about flocks of robins in the area. These birds are likely migrants from further north, including the Canadian Maritime, which travel as far south as necessary to find food. These Maritime birds are more brightly colored than our spring robins, which are not likely to arrive for another four to six weeks. They feed mainly on wintering fruit such as winterberry, holly, cedar, juniper and sumac. They may be tempted to a feeder with softened raisins, grapes, blueberries, apples, oranges, or currants.
Bluebirds are also being reported from many areas including Rowley, Byfield and Essex. 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 wrens will visit suet feeders as well.
As the natural supply of seeds dwindles this winter, as ash, birch and pine cone seeds become depleted, more of the winter finches will visit feeders to supplement their diet. Goldfinches, and perhaps pine siskins and redpolls may show up more regularly on thistle 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.
And if that British study holds true, those birds that partake of our ‘handouts’ and survive, may have a more successful breeding season come spring!