For the Birds: Seedy winter for many birds

Photo by Chris Bosak An American goldfinch perches on a coneflower head.

At a certain point, my shared driveway splits in two. My neighbor is off to the right. I’m on the left. A row of about 10 eastern hemlocks separates the driveways.

The other day as I drove down the driveway before it splits, I noticed hundreds of little hemlock cones under the trees. Maybe thousands. It instantly brought me back to one of my favorite winter birding moments.

I was still relatively new to birdwatching when I took a long walk in Pisgah State Park. The park has several entrance points. The one I used on this day was my favorite entrance. The trail from the parking lot leads down a long hill. Once at the bottom of the hill, it’s like the rest of the world is a million miles away. No houses, cars or anything. Just woods and other interesting habitats to explore and enjoy.

On this day, light snow was falling when I arrived. The snow picked up steadily as I continued walking, but it was a gentle, windless snowfall and actually quite calming as I remember. Perhaps that’s why I kept walking and walking.

Eventually, I heard a faint pitter-patter ahead of me. The sound got louder as I approached a small hill. Soon enough, I saw the source as hemlock cones rained down from beneath some towering evergreens. I lifted my binoculars and saw dozens of American goldfinches among the branches. I sat on the trail’s edge and watched the birds and cones for quite some time. Snow began to collect on my shoulders as I sat there immersed in nature.

I wonder what caused the cones to fall in the driveway the other day. Goldfinches again perhaps? I haven’t seen them at my feeder lately, but I did hear them in the backyard a few times. Blue jays love those hemlocks too and they often flush when I park the truck. Squirrels are fairly numerous, both gray and red, but I don’t think they could have dislodged that many cones. I’m going to go with goldfinches. Why not?

It also illustrates that the birds that stick around New England in the winter are resourceful. Sure, bird feeders help, but most of their food still comes from natural sources. Seeds are an important part of many birds’ diets, particularly in the winter. They are relatively plentiful, but it can get tricky following heavy snowfalls that cover grasses and weeds. That’s when some birds may rely on backyard feeders more than usual.

Tall weeds growing around beaches are a godsend for birds such as snow buntings and horned larks. I recall a day when I lived near a beach and visited following a snowstorm. The snow was high, but the tops of some weeds still poked out. It was an interesting sight to see sparrows and kinglets standing on the snow and simply leaning over to grab the seeds. Typically, they have to land on the top of the weed and grab the seeds while the plant sways and bends under the weight of the bird.

Another of my favorite “birds eating seeds in winter” stories happened about five years ago. I walked into a big-box hardware store at the right time as they were selling off their perennials for $1 each. It was well into fall and they must have needed the space to get ready for Christmas. I bought a few coneflower plants and repotted them into a large container on my deck.

To my delight, the flowers lived in that container for several more months, well into November. They survived a few ice storms and a snowfall or two. When they faded, which was well after most of the other flowers were long gone, birds such as goldfinches, titmice and chickadees came around to pick out the seeds.

Fruits, of course, are another good source of food for birds in the winter. But that’s a story for another day.

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