Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Keeping Feeders Filled Help Birds’ Survival
February 26, 2011
By Steve Grinley

     In my birding travels this past week, I couldn’t help but notice the number of empty bird feeders that I encountered. It reminded me of a column that I wrote a few years ago, so I have dusted it off and offer it to you again as relevant as it was then:

     As I did some general birding driving around the area today, visiting neighborhoods in Newburyport, Newbury, West Newbury, Amesbury and Salisbury, I saw flocks of robin feeding on bare grassy areas and heard red-winged blackbirds singing their territorial “conk-a-ree” call at various wetland locations. Many customers have reported redwings at their feeders already and even a few folks have reported grackles arriving. Though I can always predict with much certainty that these “harbingers of spring” will be soon hit with the harsh reality of a New England late winter storm, they do, non-the-less, insist in forcing us to think about spring.

     The other thing I noticed as I drove around was the number of empty bird feeders. Whether these are a result of the climbing prices of bird seed, or the notion that birds can “fend for themselves” as we move closer to spring, it is not clear.

     Bird seed, specifically sunflower, has climbed to record high prices during the last few months. The demand for non-trans fat oils has been one reason. Sunflower oil is non-trans fat, and as more restaurants and food convert to non-trans fats, the demand for sunflower has risen, particularly sunflower meats, but also black-oil and striped sunflower seeds. This increase in demand has driven up prices, and, together with increased transportation costs, has caused a significant increase in all sunflower seed prices and all quality mixed seeds that contain sunflower. Reason enough to not fill the feeders so often.

     [Another spike in sunflower prices has occurred again this year, just during the past couple of weeks, after several years of relatively steady prices. Some of the same reasons have been given, along with crop failures of other grains causing farmers to convert land use from sunflower production to other products. That, coupled with a harsh, cold winter increased the demand for sunflower at bird feeders, thus lowering supply. Throw in Wall Street and the futures game, which encourages producers to sit on some inventories, hedging that the price will continue to rise.]

     Another reason for empty feeders may be that some people feel that birds can find natural food during more moderate weather. They think that birds don’t need supplements when spring approaches.

     Late winter and springtime are the most important times to feed backyard birds. There are fewer other food choices for birds since natural winter supplies have dwindled and run out. [This is evident today from the number of redpolls now showing up at area feeders.]Natural seeds have been consumed throughout the winter leaving returning birds with slim choices. New natural seed crops won’t happen until summer and early fall, so feeding birds now will help sustain them until the warmer weather brings insects.

     As we’ve seen this weekend, this time of year can be a time of unpredictable weather. Even though we may get some warmer days, it can be very cold at night and late season storms can blanket the area with ice and snow. Birds need to eat to stay warm. Feeders can help them to stay warm and to survive.

     Continuing to feed birds during the spring and summer does not interfere with “nature”. Birds will continue to use feeders to supplement what natural food they find, and you then have the opportunity to observe their most interesting activities-mating, nesting and raising their young. Spring feeding is also an environmentally safe way to control insects in your yard. Bluebirds, wrens, and woodpeckers will consume caterpillars, ants and mosquitoes, reducing the need to use other, less friendly, means to control these insects in your yard and garden.

     It may seem premature to think about spring today, but it is only weeks away and the spring migrants are already arriving. Feeding them during these final days of winter will ensure their survival and provide you with much enjoyment and benefit in the months ahead.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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