Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Are Local Birds Abandoning Feeders?
January 18, 2020
By Steve Grinley

     One day this past week, I watched the feeders in the backyard and wondered if there was a giant hawk sitting on our roof that I couldn’t see! There wasn’t a bird, or even a squirrel, stirring anywhere. I even opened the slider to try to hear some birds that might be nearby – but not a sound! This continued for some time without any movement or sound in the woods behind the house. Rather spooky.

     Eventually, a couple of squirrels were climbing about the trees. I watched as one of them was snipping off small branches high in one of the younger trees. It carried it down, ran to one of the large hickory trees and climbed up to deposit the branch in among some other twigs in a crotch of the tree. The other squirrel was climbing the same hickory with a mouth full of leaves and haphazardly deposited them in the same clump of twigs. Here it was January and they were still building a nest!

     After an hour or two, a single goldfinch came to the thistle feeder on the deck. Thirty minutes later, a downy woodpecker was pecking on our suet in the backyard. An hour later, a couple of mourning doves showed up to scratch the ground under our feeders. This is hardly the activity that we were used to throughout the fall!

     Most days we would have twenty or thirty goldfinches, a couple of pairs of downy woodpeckers, a female hairy woodpecker and a pair of red-bellied woodpeckers. Titmice and nuthatches would partake of sunflower seeds, and peanuts, and even a few blue jays would come by screaming for peanuts on the deck if we hadn’t put them out!

     “Our” Carolina wrens would be by, often early, to check for live mealworms in their feeder. Up to a dozen juncos and an even number of white-throated sparrows would be on the deck and under the feeders looking for millet, nutrasaff, or dropped sunflower chips and thistle from the feeders above. More than a dozen mourning doves would be on the ground and in the trees at any one time. But lately, the birds have been scarce.

     We do have Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks in the yard frequently, and they keep things quiet for a short period. But they move on and within an hour or so birds are usually back to normal. The neighbor’s two black labs, Blacky and Whitety (even though they are both black), saunter through the yard and scurry after squirrels and chipmunks keeping them away – though temporarily. The dogs leave and the mammals come out again to raid the feeders and feed under the feeders as usual.

     Many customers have also had a quiet few weeks recently and the chatter on the bird list serves is also about the lack of birds at the feeders. So what’s keeping the birds away? Are there really giant hawks sitting on our roofs, predating our birds when we are not looking? Or is that loss of 3 billion birds over the past fifty years accelerating so fast now that we are seeing it happen overnight in our own backyards? Let us hope not.

     There are many reasons why birds go absent from feeders. Certainly predation is one factor. As I said, hawks can take birds and will keep things quiet at the feeders, but that tends to be a localized and, often a temporary issue.

     More threatening is a new cat in the neighborhood. Cats eat billions, yes, billions of birds every year. And though this may be a localized problem, one cat can keep birds away for long periods of time.

     Since this is a wide spread problem the past few weeks, I suspect it is more due to the weather. The overall milder winter, without long stretches of freezing temperatures and lack of significant snowfall has helped keep more natural food available for birds. They do prefer natural food to feeder offerings and I believe they are doing just that. We prefer garden-fresh vegetables to canned or bagged veggies.

     Some birds are still finding insects among the leaves and crevices of wood in the forested areas. There are still many berries and seeds in the wild. The warmer temperatures have opened pine cones making those seeds available as well. Even the lower shrubs and grasses are not snow-covered keeping those seeds still available to birds.

     The seed crops up north are ample to support the birds up there, enough that they are not migrating south to our area. Fewer, if any red-breasted nuthatches, purple finches, or pine siskins are here to compete with our local birds for food. No evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, or Bohemian waxwings are in southern New England, so that leaves more natural food for our local birds to partake.

     But, yes, this is New England, and a change in weather could change the availability of natural food in short order (and this weekend could be the start of it). So do keep at least some food in your feeders, but also be prepared for the day when your birds come flocking back to your feeders. It might be sooner than you think, and you should be prepared to welcome back all your lost friends!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Port Plaza West Shops
45 Storey Ave, Suite 7B
Newburyport, MA 01950

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