Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Winter Storms Take A Toll on Birds
February 21, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     This winter’s relentless storms have been a struggle for many of us. It is particularly hard on the birds. They seem to know when a storm is approaching, as they flocked 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 have had tens of goldfinches filling every available perch on our thistle feeders, devouring the Finch Mix seed as fast as we can 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 before and after a storm when natural food supplies may be covered with snow or caked in ice. So it is important to go out right after a storm and clear the feeders of snow and ice. With the blizzard conditions that we have experienced, the snow is being blown horizontally for many of the storms and feeders get covered and clogged with snow.

     Be sure to scrape away all the snow and ice, especially from the perch areas and around the feeding ports on the feeders. I have had to scrape the snow off the suet and hanging seed cakes, often more than once because of the blowing snow. 

     In addition to seed and suet, you can put out some fruit for the fruit eating birds including robins, bluebirds and mockingbirds. Bluebirds enjoy crumbled suet, especially peanut or insect suet, on a platform or dish feeder. If you have plantings in your yard such as crab apple, winterberry or holly, they may attract cedar waxwings, wintering hermit thrushes or catbirds which might feast on the natural fruit.

     I have had a number of customers tell me that they have had bluebirds at their heated bird bath. A heated bird bath will draw many birds to it, as fresh water is essentially unavailable with these frigid temperatures. Even birds that don’t normally visit feeders may take advantage of the open water.

     At the height of the storms, and during these long, frigid 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, buildings 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, but if it gets wet inside, you will have to change it out.

     A West Newbury resident has a bird-cam in one of her bluebird nesting boxes that she monitors during the spring and summer. She keeps the nesting box up during the winter but had rolled up the cord from the camera to store from the winter. A few winters ago, she saw the bluebirds checking out the box and decided to hook the camera back up to her TV. Because the camera has 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 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, huddling together in the one box. They must have figured out that the body heat of five was better than three!

     When I watched the feeders after the storm, I realized that the storm may have taken its toll. I have a song sparrow that is missing its tail. Not sure if it was storm related, as I do get visits from a young Cooper’s hawk. It could be that the song sparrow was just barely fast enough to prevent being a meal for the hawk!

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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