Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Birds Struggle To Survive Winter Storms
January 19, 2024
by Steve Grinley
These past weeks’ storms were a struggle for many of us with snow, wind, rain, and ice. They were particularly hard on the birds. They seem to know when a storm is approaching, as they flock 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 thistle feeders, devouring the finch 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. It is important to go out right after a storm and clear the feeders of snow and ice.
Scrape away all snow and ice, especially from the perch areas and around the feeding ports on the feeders. You should also scrape the snow off the suet and hanging seed cakes. If you do this once as the storm is winding down, it may be necessary to repeat the process the next morning once the storm has passed. You could be rewarded by a common redpoll or pine siskin that might join the flock of goldfinches at the finch feeders.
In addition to seed and suet, you might 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, you may find cedar waxwings, wintering hermit thrushes, catbirds or a yellow-breasted chat feasting on the natural fruit. In years past, a western tanager, Townsend’s solitaire or Bullock’s oriole have been found eating apple, oranges and sunflower hearts at feeders.
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. Our bluebirds, titmice and goldfinches frequent our heated bird bath.
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 used a bird-cam in one of her bluebird nesting boxes that she monitored during the spring and summer. She kept 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 one winter day and decided to hook the camera back up to her TV.
Because the camera had 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 birds 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 and huddled together in the one box. They must have figured out that the body heat of five was better than three!