For the Birds: Good times, bad times …

Photo by Chris Bosak — A northern cardinal and red-bellied woodpecker share a feeding station in New England.

For those who feed birds, it seems that there are slow times, busy times, and routine times.

It can be disconcerting and frustrating during the slow times. You glance out of the window hoping to see a few birds to lift your spirits or to just appreciate a bit of nature during the day, and nothing is there. It can be worrisome because the thought often arises as to whether or not the lack of birds indicates that something is wrong with bird populations.

Populations of many bird species, of course, are indeed in decline. But a slow period at the feeder is typically not an indication of a broader concern. There are certain times of the year when birdfeeders go through a slow period. Seasonal fluctuations are normal. We are perhaps going through one of those fluctuations now as I’ve received a few emails recently wondering why the birds have suddenly stopped visiting. 

There are also many other factors that may contribute to slow times at the feeders.

Even feeders that are typically busy throughout the year can experience lags in bird visits. One of the main reasons for a lag is the presence of a new predator. Maybe a Cooper’s hawk or sharp-shinned hawk has been trolling the area and hiding out near the feeders. Perhaps, unseen to the one who feeds birds, the hawk grabbed a meal or two and the rest of the birds took note and found a new place to find food. Not to worry, however. The birds will return before long.

A new cat in the neighborhood could also be impacting the number of birds visiting the feeders. Many cat owners keep their cats strictly as indoor pets, but many cats are allowed to roam the neighborhood. The presence of a cat around birdfeeders is likely to result in the birds staying away while the cat is around.

Another potential reason for a slow period at the birdfeeder is that the birds are simply finding ample supplies of wild food. This may seem like a strange time of year to be finding an abundance of food in the wild in New England, but there are a lot of seeds yet to be picked off of the weeds, grasses and flowers that died off in the fall. Once these sources become more scarce, the birds will return to supplementing their diet at feeders.

A change in seed type or a new batch of the same seed typically bought can cause a temporary slowdown at the feeder as well. The seeds may not be as fresh as usual, or the birds may take a while to adjust to the new seed offerings. In the meantime, the birds may look for another source of food nearby. Again, they will usually return before too long.

Timing is also very important in birdwatching, of course. Sometimes I will look out at my feeders and see absolutely nothing for hours on end. Then, suddenly, it seems as if every bird in the neighborhood arrives. If your feeders remain full of food, however, timing is probably not the issue.

When a long-standing feeder that has been popular with birds for years suddenly goes dry, it can be a bummer for sure. But it is more often than not a temporary slowdown, and the birds will be back within a few days or weeks.

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