Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Bird Feeders Help Birds Survive, and Breed Successfully
February 07, 2015
by Steve Grinley

     A few short weeks ago, we thought that we might sneak through the winter with little snow and just lots of cold weather. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had another plan. And you know it must be a conspiracy when Puxatawny Phil sees his shadow on an overcast day! Six more weeks of this? Let’s hope not!

     The deep snows have covered much of the natural food supply for the birds and, unfortunately, some of the feeders that people have put out as well. A few people with this dilemma have come in to buy a back-up feeder that they can hang off their deck, porch, or off a window, when trampling through the snow isn’t an option. I admire those who can shovel a path, or use a snow blower to access their bird feeders.

     If your feeders are buried, or blown away in a storm, you can set up a temporary feeding station by putting a plastic dish or piece of plywood on top of the snow and filling it with seed. If you have cleared an area to feed the birds, another temporary solution is to use plywood as a lean-to and throw seed underneath where the seed, and the birds, will be protected. Seed spread along a deck railing will work in a pinch (as long as the wind isn’t too strong) and will attract many visitors. Providing whatever food you can for the birds before, during , and after a storm can help them to survive.

     A study conducted in Ireland some years 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 appeared in Biology Letters, published by the Royal Society in Britain, stated: “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 has been a harsh winter here in New England and feeding birds can 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 will be finding that the winter supply of natural food is being depleted. Our resident birds appreciate the added handout that feeders provide. In addition to the nourishment that bird seed and suet provide, the birds expend less energy and burn less fat, helping them to survive the cold. A number of birds that don’t normally stay the winter or that may be here accidentally and are not used to New England weather are particularly helped by seed and suet at feeders.

     A rare, painted bunting visited a feeder on Cape Cod for several days. A few orange-crowned and pine warblers have stayed the winter in some locales. I have had a couple of reports of Baltimore orioles visiting feeders in our area. These birds may survive by feeding on sunflower meats and on suet, supplemented by what fruit they may find. Feeders will help these unlikely winter lingerers survive the cold and snow.

     I have received calls in recent weeks about flocks of robins in the area. Many of these birds are likely migrants from further north, including the Canadian Maritime, which travel as far south as necessary to find food. The Maritime birds are larger and more brightly colored than our spring robins, which are not likely to arrive for another four to six weeks. The robins survive on fruit this time of year and are less likely to come to a feeder.

     Bluebirds are also being reported from many surrounding towns. Several customers are feeding mealworms and/or Bluebird Nuggets (peanut butter suet pieces) to the bluebirds to help supplement the fruit that they are finding. Carolina wrens are also being fed mealworms, and the wrens feed on suet as well.

     As the natural supply of seeds dwindles in the weeks ahead, with ash, birch and pine cone seeds being depleted, more of the winter finches are visiting feeders to supplement their diet. Goldfinches, pine siskins, and redpolls (those little birds with a bright red cap) are showing 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!

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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