Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Fewer Birds Visiting Feeders
February 09, 2024
By Steve Grinley

     The temperature is moderating a bit this week and Puxatawny Phil did not see his shadow this week, predicting that spring is just around the corner! Well, maybe, but we New Englanders know that the weather can, and probably will, change again as February progresses.

     We have had a number of inquiries from people asking where all their birds have gone. Usually, we get these questions in the fall, but not throughout the winter. Where are the birds? Our feeders aren’t being used, is something wrong with the birds? In the last weeks these questions kept popping up. No there is nothing wrong with the birds, they haven’t disappeared, they are just doing what nature intended. They are foraging in the wild. I explained in a previous column that this year is turning out to be a pretty big mast year in New England.

     Since trees need to use a significant amount of their energy to create seeds (aka mast), they don’t produce heavy crops every year. When they do, it happens with amazing synchronicity among tree species, which means the forest canopy can be affected region-wide. Beech, maple, and hickory are all having big seed crops; even some oaks are putting out a lot of acorns, depending on the species. The theory is that the trees produce enough seed to overwhelm the birds and animals eating it so that some seed remains and will grow, reseeding the forests. Pine cones, acorns, hickory nuts, maple seeds, they are everywhere and the birds and mammals are loving it. There even seems to be fewer squirrels in yards. They are foraging in the wild as well.

     We have noticed this at our home feeders as well. We have fewer goldfinches this week, whose numbers swell to fifty or sixty just before a cold snap. We have a small numbers of tree sparrows and an occasional song sparrow, a few white-throated sparrows and half a dozen juncos. A few woodpeckers visit our suet and peanut feeder and a titmouse or nuthatch come by to politely take a peanut or sunflower. The bluebirds are making fewer visits to our mealworms. The cardinals are here early in the day and again near dusk, but otherwise we are lacking the numbers and variety of birds that we usually enjoy in the dead of winter. The seed crop is also plentiful further north which is why we haven’t seen the winter finches such as redpolls, siskins, evening grosbeaks and crossbills.

     So, the answer is that the weather has just been too nice and the supply of natural food has been more than ample. The mild weather permits birds to take in less food as they don’t need as many calories to stay warm. Birds just supplement their natural food by visiting our feeders. Normally in the fall, when the supply of natural seeds is at its peak, birds “disappear” from feeders to take advantage of this natural supply. By mid-winter, it gets so cold, and we often have snow, that the natural food supply freezes or is covered in snow. That’s why birds flock to feeders in greater numbers in the winter months. Just not as much this winter.

     Since activity at the feeders has been so slow and the feeders remain relatively full, we tend to pay less attention to maintaining them. Not keeping the feeder clean and filled with fresh seed will not improve our chances for attracting birds. This usually isn’t a problem during “normal” winter when the temperature stays at or near freezing and precipitation falls in the form of snow. This year, the milder temperatures and precipitation in the form of rain provide the ingredients for mold to form in the bottom of the feeder. This is especially true for Nyger (thistle), sunflower hearts and shelled peanuts that tend to absorb moisture more quickly than some other seeds.

     Merely “topping off” a feeder with fresh seed will not solve the problem. Feeders should be emptied, and thoroughly cleaned with soap and water. A solution of one part bleach to ten parts water can be used to kill any mold and bacteria. Thoroughly rinse the feeder, let it dry completely, and then add fresh seed. Fill the feeder only half way until activity returns to minimize waste. You can even spread a little seed underneath the feeder to help attract some birds.

     We may not have as many birds to enjoy at our feeders this winter, but we should take some comfort in knowing that the birds are doing reasonably well during this abnormally milder season. Of course, we should keep our feeders clean with fresh seed just in case. The birds are scouting their food sources (your feeders) even though they may not need to feed from them right now. They know where the food is when they need it. After all, this is New England and mother nature could turn on us at any time.

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

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