Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Fewer Birds Noted at Area Feeders
September 16, 2017
By Steve Grinley

     It is around this time each year when more people are asking “where are all my birds?” Though many feeders are still active, many folks complain that their birds have disappeared from their backyards and feeders. One person stated that this was the first time in fifty years that she had no birds! Most first suspect that it must be the bird seed. Others wonder if it may be from the spraying for mosquitoes in their area.

     Certainly the hummingbirds, orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks and other summer resident birds are all but gone now. A few linger, but most have headed south for warmer climates. Even many of the red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds and grackles have left.

     The winter birds have yet to arrive. The juncos, tree sparrows, redpolls, pine siskins, evening grosbeaks and crossbills likely won’t be here for at least another few weeks or longer. A few of the migrating sparrows will be coming through soon, but, otherwise, there is a sort of “lull” in the migration as far a feeder birds go.

     But how about the year ‘round residents? The chickadees, cardinals, blue jays, titmice, nuthatches, goldfinches, house finches and other birds that are usually here all the time seem to have also disappeared, or at least slowed down at the feeders. We have even noticed it at our home feeders. What is happening?

     Interestingly, I have also received several comments that the squirrels have disappeared from their yards and feeders! While people go to great lengths (and often great expense) to keep squirrels away, they seem to miss them when they are gone! So what is going on?

     This situation occurs almost every year at about this time. My theory is that early autumn is the time of year when the natural supply of seeds and nuts is most abundant. Despite the popular belief that birds only eat from your feeders and are dependent upon them, the birds are actually just using your feeders to supplement what they can find in the wild.

     Birds, and squirrels, are very opportunistic. When the supply of natural seeds and nuts is plentiful, they take advantage of that. I’ve noticed many oak trees with blue jays (and squirrels) foraging in them for acorns now. We have several hickory trees in our backyard and all day long the squirrels are dropping the hickory nuts to the ground and eating or collecting them. 

     The birds know that your feeders are there and, hopefully, will be there when they are tired of foraging and their natural food supply starts to dwindle again. It would be akin to your picking a fresh tomato from your garden for a salad that evening. Doesn’t it taste so much better than the ones you find at the grocery store? Don’t you take advantage of the fresh produce from your garden, or the local farm, when it is available?

     The same could be said for fresh fish from our local lakes or ocean and fresh meat from a local hunt. Doesn’t the fish that you or a family member caught that day taste so much better than the fillet that you pick out of the fish counter at the grocery store? If there is a hunter in the family, fresh meat is decidedly better than that from the meat case at the store. In season, we prefer fresh and local.

     It doesn’t mean that we don’t enjoy vegetables, fish and meat during other seasons, or to supplement what we can’t grow or catch ourselves. We know what we like, and we take advantage of the availability of fresh, local food when we can. When we can’t, we enjoy the freshest we can find elsewhere. Well, so do the birds.

     Birds “shop around” for the freshest meal. If natural food is not readily available, they will go to the feeders with the freshest seed. That probably why I hear so often that the birds won’t eat the seed that they got from the big box stores. Who knows how long that seed has been in warehouses! 

     Of course there are other reasons why birds don’t visit, or stop visiting, particular feeders or backyards. Cats, either your own or a neighbor’s, is often problem number one. Despite hearing that “my cat is an outdoor cat”, or “my cat wouldn’t hurt a fly,” all cats have a natural instinct to kill birds. And they do. Billions (with a “B”) each year.

     Seed that isn’t fresh or has gone bad in feeders is probably the second biggest reason that birds stay away. Bacteria grow in feeders that have been neglected, and that is harmful to the birds. Like us at the grocery store, when we see, feel, and sense what is fresh, we avoid those foods that don’t appear so. So do the birds. Many feeders that come in for repair are merely in need of a good cleaning to make them functional and attractive again.

     Hawks and other natural predators are another reason for birds to stay away. These are usually temporary situations and only last for minutes or hours, rarely days or longer. Once the predator moves on, the birds return.

     So my guess is that if you clean your feeders regularly, and use fresh, good quality seed, you will entice birds with a more natural offering. It doesn’t mean that they won’t prefer the abundance of natural seeds and nuts available in the wild right now. Once their natural supply of food is reduced, they will choose your menu over others, and they will become regular visitors to your feeders again.

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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