Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Bird Feeders Help Birds Survive, and Breed
February 9, 2008 
Steve Grinley

     A recent study conducted in Ireland suggests 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 has been 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 are finding that the winter supply of natural food is being depleted. A number of birds that don’t normally stay the winter or may be here accidentally are particularly helped by seed and suet at feeders.

     A rare, western tanager continues to visit a feeder in Merrimac. Another has been visiting feeders on Cape Cod and a third has shown up in Connecticut. These bright yellow and black birds look out of place, and they are, as they seldom venture east of the Mississippi. These birds may survive, feeding on sunflower meats and on suet, supplemented by what fruit they may find.

     I received a call this week from a Newburyport resident who believed that she had an oriole coming to her sunflower feeder. Later that day, she brought in video of a wintering Baltimore oriole at her feeder. That same day, I received a call from another resident in the same neighborhood who described a bird with a bright yellow breast that appeared briefly at her thistle feeder. This was likely the same oriole. Another customer had reported an oriole at her feeder, just around the corner from these residents, over a month ago.

     A second oriole was reported during the same period visiting feeders in a different neighborhood of the city. Feeders will help these unlikely winter lingerers survive the cold and snow.

     I have received numerous calls the past couple of 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.

     Bluebirds are also being reported from many areas including Rowley, Byfield and Salisbury. Several customers are still feeding mealworms to the bluebirds to help supplement the fruit that they are finding. Carolina wrens are also being fed mealworms, and I’ve seen numerous wrens on suet feeders recently.

     As the natural supply of seeds dwindles, 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. White-winged crossbills and purple finches are appearing at sunflower 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
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4 years of service to the birding community! 
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