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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Titmouse and the peanut

Photo by Chris Bosak
A tufted titmouse take a peanut from a railing in Danbury, Connecticut, February 2019.

Here is a short series of photos showing a tufted titmouse contemplating and ultimately deciding to make off with a peanut, which looks comically large in the bird’s tiny bill. Good thing titmice don’t swallow their food whole.

I got this.

See? No problem.
I’m out of here.

Hardy cardinals on ice

Photo by Chris Bosak Male northern cardinal at feeder, New England, Jan. 2019.

Here’s a male and female cardinal seen this morning during icy, single-digit temperatures.

Photo by Chris Bosak Female northern cardinal on icy branches, New England, Jan. 2019.

For the Birds: DIY birding projects

Photo by Chris Bosak
A downy woodpecker eats a homemade Christmas-themed suet cake, December 2018.

Most birdwatchers I know have a self-reliant, practical side. They don’t necessarily long to live off the grid in a small cabin in the wilderness, hunting for their food and cutting down trees to stay warm, but there is a hint of that spirit in a lot of us.

Luckily, there are many do-it-yourself projects for birdwatchers that may be done in the comfort of our heated, electrified, and well-stocked homes. The projects will save a few bucks (no pun intended) and result in that satisfaction only a good DIY activity can deliver.

The easiest project is making your own hummingbird food. It is inexpensive and requires almost no skill. In other words, perfect for someone like me.

Simply mix four parts water with one part sugar and you’ve got hummingbird food. I usually double the recipe to eight cups of water and two cups of sugar so it lasts longer. I like to bring the water to the point at which it is about to boil then turn off the heat and add the sugar. Most of the sugar will dissolve itself in the hot water, but a minute or two Continue reading

House finch with no tail visits feeder

Photo by Chris Bosak A house finch without tail feathers visits a feeder in Danbury, Conn., January 2019.

I noticed right away that this bird looked different. How can you not notice a bird without a tail?

This house finch has been visiting my feeders (Nyjer and sunflower seeds) for a few days now. Any variety of things could account for his missing tail, but the most likely reason is a close encounter with a predator (cat, hawk, fox, etc.)

I’ve seen house finches with avian conjunctivitis and I even had one get its head stuck in a tube feeder, but I’ve never seen a tail-less house finch before this. Not to worry, though, the feathers will grow back soon.

For the sake of comparison, here’s a “normal” house finch.

Photo by Chris Bosak A House Finch eats buds from a bush in Norwalk, Conn., Feb. 2015.

For the Birds: Readers report sightings and lack thereof

Photo by Chris Bosak Ablack-capped chickadee grabs a sunflower seed from a Christmas decoration during the winter of 2016-17 in Danbury, Conn.

Photo by Chris Bosak
A black-capped chickadee grabs a sunflower seed from a Christmas decoration during the winter of 2016-17 in Danbury, Conn.

Readers take over as we settle in for a nice holiday break.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and keep those bird sightings, observations and questions coming.

Susan in Nelson (N.H.) is one of the lucky birdwatchers to have seen evening grosbeaks this year. The handsome yellow, black and white bird has been spotted throughout New England in larger numbers than normal this fall. Susan lives at high elevation and has been hosting the grosbeaks since late November.

Evening grosbeaks, like many birds, unfortunately, are somewhat of a rare sighting in New England these days. They used to be more common in our region, but now a sighting is cause for celebration. I haven’t seen any at my home yet, but I did spy one during my early November trip to Pittsburg, N.H.

Lida in Harrisville sent some great photos of much larger birds that visited her backyard feeder. The photo shows two wild turkeys on her deck — not far from the glass door — eating from a platform feeder.

Ken in Swanzey and Sandy in Keene shared a concern: Where are all the birds.

Both have had plenty of birds at their feeders in the past — even the recent past — but suddenly the birds stopped showing up.

Ken writes: “Our two feeders are normally jammed with at least eight species of small birds. It is not unusual for me to have to fill each feeder daily, such are their fall appetites. And, then, a month ago, gone! Nothing!”

Sandy shared: “About a week before Thanksgiving we stopped seeing or hearing any bird activity. Post-Thanksgiving, we have spotted just a few. This is not typical of years past.”

It’s a question I get fairly often at different times of the year. The typical responses I hear others give is that the feeders may be dirty, a cat or a hawk may be lurking nearby, the seed may be old, or maybe the birds have found another feeding station nearby.

Those reasons, or a combination thereof, may be the cause for the disappearance of birds from some backyards. I doubt they are true in many cases, however. My guess is that the feeders are clean, the seed is fresh, predators are coming and going as usual, and there are plenty of birds to occupy all the feeders in the neighborhood.

So, what is it then? My response is typically that there is no simple answer and that the birds will eventually return.

Nature has its cycles and is just as unpredictable as it is predictable. We can do all the studies and research we want, but we’ll never have all of the answers. That’s part of what makes nature so fascinating to us.

It can be frustrating for sure to look out the window and not see the number of birds you typically see. It can also be concerning. I wouldn’t worry so much about a short-term dearth of birds at your feeders, however, frustrating as that may be.

It is important to take note of these slow periods — as Ken and Sandy have done — because when short-term turns into long-term, then there’s cause for real concern.

For the Birds: The siskins come at last

Photo by Chris Bosak Pine siskins visit a feeder in Danbury, Connecticut, fall 2018.

A wise man once said: “The nature of a winter finch irruption, however, could mean a sizable flock of pine siskins can show up and empty out my Nyjer seed feeder at any moment.”

Just kidding. That was me writing two weeks ago about the hot start to the winter finch season. The wise man part is up for debate.

At the time of that writing, a female purple finch had been my only out-of-the-ordinary sighting at my feeding station. A week later a few fox sparrows showed up. I know fox sparrows are not finches, but they can fit loosely into the category of winter finches because of their sporadic visits to New England backyards.

Then last week, true to the sentence at the top of this column, the pine siskins showed up. It started out with two siskins sharing the tube feeder with a group of goldfinches. The next day, I counted three siskins. The third day, about 20 siskins showed up and occupied every perch on the tube feeder and a nearby hopper feeder. The spillover Continue reading