Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Birds Struggle To Survive Snow Storms
January 15, 2011

by Steve Grinley

     This past week’s storm was a struggle for many of us. It was particularly hard on the birds. They seem to know when a storm is approaching, as they flocked to the feeders in the days before the storm, fueling up to sustain them through the worst of it. It seems that they can predict the weather with more certainty than our best trained meteorologists. We had tens of goldfinches at every available perch on our eight thistle feeders, devouring the Nyger seed as fast as we could fill the feeders.

     Birds are supplementing their natural food with the seed and suet at your feeders. The availability of feeder-food makes it a bit easier for them, especially right after a storm when natural seed supplies may be covered with snow or caked in ice. So it is important to go out right after a storm and clear the feeders of snow and ice. With the blizzard conditions that we experienced, the wet, sticky snow was being blown horizontally for much of this storm and there isn’t a feeder that won’t get covered or clogged with snow.

     Scrape away all snow and ice, especially from the perch areas and around the feeding ports on the feeders. I also had to scrape the snow off the suet and hanging seed cakes. I did this once late on Wednesday as the snow was winding down, but I needed to repeat the process the next morning once the snow had completely stopped. My reward came a few hours later when I looked out and saw that a common redpoll had joined the flock of goldfinches at the thistle feeders.

     In addition to seed and suet, you can put out some fruit for the fruit eating birds including robins, bluebirds and mockingbirds. If you have plantings in your yard such as crab apple, winterberry or holly, cedar waxwings, wintering hermit thrushes or catbirds might also feast on the natural fruit. One lucky couple in the area have a western tanager eating apple, oranges and sunflower hearts at their feeders, and this western visitor survived the nor’easter with their help.

     If you have a heated bird bath, many birds will flock to it as fresh water becomes more unavailable with these frigid temperatures. Even birds that don’t normally visit feeders may take advantage of the open water.

     At the height of the storm, and during these long, cold New England nights, birds seek shelter wherever they can find it. Some choose thickets, brush piles, evergreens, rhododendron, or other sheltering shrubs and trees. Some will crowd into cavities in trees, building and other structures to keep warm. You can help the birds by putting up roosting boxes or roosting pockets where birds can huddle to keep warm. Birds also use nesting boxes for roosting, so if you have bird houses around your yard that you have left up for the winter, these will provide added shelter at night for the birds. You can add grasses, cotton, or dryer lint to the boxes to add further insulation for the birds.

     A West Newbury resident has a bird-cam in one of her bluebird nesting boxes that she monitors during the spring and summer. She keeps the nesting box up during the winter but had rolled up the cord from the camera to store from the winter. She saw the bluebirds checking out the box this past week and decided to hook the camera back up to her TV. Because the camera has infrared, she could watch what transpired in the house at night. The first night, five bluebirds were jockeying for position in the bird house, fighting one another until two got expelled. She watched the remaining three bluebirds hunker down for the night. She watched the next night and all five bluebirds came to terms, huddling together in the one box. They must have figured out that the body heat of five was better than three!

     When I watched the feeders after the storm, I realized that the storm may have taken its toll. My song sparrow was missing its tail. Not sure if it was storm related, as I do get regular visits from a young Cooper’s hawk and it could be that the song sparrow only barely fast enough!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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