For the Birds: Birds do just fine without feeders, too

Photo by Chris Bosak
A Blue Jay eats an acorn at Selleck’s Woods in Darien, Conn., April 2016.

After a three-hour drive to visit my brother Gregg in upstate New York, it was nice to relax and watch the black-capped chickadees forage in theblue spruce trees outside his kitchen window.

A flock of dark-eyed juncos darted past the window and settled at the base of his house where a bare patch of ground offered the only hope for these ground-feeding birds. The rest of the yard was buried under snow and ice.

A glance back at the spruce trees proved what I had thought all along: The chickadees were not alone. It was a mixed flock of chickadees and tufted titmice poking at the cones and sorting through the needles for any scraps that may have fallen.

A bright red male cardinal, hidden from view up until this point, zipped past the window and disappeared into the nearby woods. The female followed a few seconds later. Even though I was cozy indoors, I could hear the blue jays screeching from outside. It sounded as if the house were surrounded by the noisy, but beautiful, birds.

It was a nice peaceful few moments of bird-watching … just what I needed after a long drive in the snow.

Then I realized something: I was seeing the same birds here that I see at my feeders at home. The funny thing is, though, Gregg doesn’t have feeders in his yard.

I’ve known for a while that birds get only a small percentage of their diets from feeders, but the visit to my brother’s drove home that point. As I’ve mentioned many times before, the best way to learn about nature is to witness it firsthand.

Some people express concerns about bird-feeding. They think the birds become dependent upon our handouts and worry that if they stop feeding the birds, the birds will not be able to find food.

Research by ornithologists shows that birds get only about 20 percent of their diet from bird feeders. (This, of course, applies only to the species that actually visit feeders.) This percentage may increase a bit in the winter when natural sources are scarce, but the majority of their diets still come from nature itself. There are berries and seeds to be found in the winter and, for a diligent bird, grubs and insects behind the bark.

Activity at my feeder runs hot and cold. I could watch for several minutes and not see a single bird. Then I’ll look out the window five minutes later and see a flurry of activity. Many birds follow a feeding circuit each day, combining natural sources and feeders. It’s a burst of excitement when the group finally shows up at the feeder.

Birds often travel together looking for food, especially in the winter. Chickadees and titmice usually show up at the feeder together and it’s not rare for a nuthatch or two to be in the mix. The flocks travel together and search for sources of food.

Much of the natural food available during the winter gets buried when it snows. That’s why activity at feeders seems to spike during and after snowstorms. Watching my feeders during a snowstorm is one of my favorite times to enjoy the hobby.

Feeders are, however, a nice supplement to a birds’ diet, especially in the winter. Feeders are also important in early spring when nesting and raising young consumes a fair amount of energy.

But don’t worry if you go away for a vacation and the feeders run dry; the birds will be just fine when you get back.

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