Fall favorites at feeders, Dark-eyed Juncos have been slow to arrive in yards due to a combination of factors. This blog will attempt to explain why, in this case, the sky is not in fact falling.
For most of the past two months, we have been spending our time here at the store mostly answering the question “Where are all of my (feeder) birds?”
Your feeders have been slow. Our feeders have been slow. And feeders throughout all of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have been slow. We’ve talked to reporters about this. We’ve talked to our seed distributor about this. And we have talked to many of you, our loyal customers and friends, about it. We’ve also written about it on our Facebook page, in our eNewsletter, and a synopsis will appear in the next edition of Freeport Wild Bird Supply News.
But I wanted to expand on it here, and at the very least, have all of the FACTS in one place.
Let’s start with this: Birds always prefer natural food sources (our feeders are only a helpful supplement) so if they can find what they need in their natural habitats, they do not need to visit our feeders nearly as often. If there’s ever proof-positive to finally kill this silly myth about birds being dependent on feeders, seasons like this are it!
So let’s talk about what’s really happening. And as usual in nature, it’s not completely simple. It’s a myriad of issues and events that have collided in a “perfect storm” of low feeder activity scenarios.
1) Abundance of Natural Food Sources.
For the most part, it is the abundance – or paucity – of natural food that determines how much activity you will have in your yard. This is particularly significant for our seed-eaters, like finches and sparrows, and fruit-eaters, like waxwings. Many trees go through “masting” cycles. This is a survival strategy in which a tree will produce a huge amount of fruit or seed one fall, followed by one or more years of very little production. Therefore, in the high production years, there is so much seed/fruit that predators cannot possibly consume it all, and the tree is all but guaranteed that a large number of its seeds will survive to germinate.
This fall has been a high production year for several common tree species. The same acorns you are swearing at in your lawn are a big part of the reason that your have less birds at your feeders. Take a look at the spruces next time you are out for a walk in the woods; you will see that most of those trees are brimming with cones, especially White and Red Spruces. And I don’t recall the last time I’ve seen so many cones on Eastern White Pines.
Many seed crops are excellent to our north as well, so we will have to wait and see if our “winter finches”, such as Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins, make it down our way this year. Interestingly though, the spruce cone crop is the best it has been in over a decade in the northeast – this could bring big numbers of Red and White-winged Crossbills this winter, and large numbers have already arrived to breed in western and northern Maine (more on “irruptives” a little later).
Purple Finches have been in short supply this fall, and are likely to not be around much this winter due to plentiful favored foods to our north.
2) Record Mild Fall.
October is on pace to set an all-time record high by multiple degrees. This is an incredible deviation from average. When it’s this warm, the energy demands of our birds are lower, reducing the need to consume as many calories to keep warm. And the lack of snow or ice has kept natural food uncovered and accessible. Insects are still out, and open water is easy to come by.
3) Facultative Migrants
While most of our long-distance migrants (like warblers and orioles) are long gone, having returned home to the tropics, many of our later-season migrants (like blackbirds and most of our native sparrows, as well as most of our waterfowl) are facultative (or “flexible”) in their timing. They can adjust their respective arrival and departures based on abundance and/or access to food. Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, and the last wave of blackbirds are still not here in Southern Maine, lingering as far north as they can for as long as they can. These birds will move a short distance south as soon as they have to, and if the winter is a short one, they will begin to work their way north earlier – or even “overwinter” further north than normal. Not even a freak snowstorm will affect them – they are built for it, and will make range adjustments as needed.
With the abundance of natural food to our north, many species (such as the so-called “winter finches” like Purple Finch and Pine Siskin) are simply not coming south this year, although we do have hopes for the wintertime appearance of Common Redpolls. We expected this – as outlined in the annual Ontario Winter Finch Forecast – and those birds are very few and far between this fall. In fact, we knew in August that it would not be a “winter finch year” because of how few Red-breasted Nuthatches (only a handful in all!) were moving past Sandy Point in August and September. After record-setting flights in late summer/early fall last year, it was safe to assume that there would not be an irruption this year.
While residents are still around (in some winters they leave when our food is not abundant), they are busy feeding on the abundance of spruce and White Pine in our area.
White-winged Crossbills are in western and northern Maine…hopefully they’ll arrive at the coast this winter by way of post-breeding dispersal.
5) Memory Bias.
Humans inherently think of the recent past first, and so we find ourselves often comparing this fall to last fall, which saw exceptionally high feeder visitation thanks to the prolonged drought we had experienced throughout the summer, greatly reducing perennial seed crops. Some of the masting trees were at cyclical lows, and cyclical lows of many cone and seed crops. And irruptions of Red-breasted Nuthatches, and to a lesser extent Pine Siskin and Purple Finch, were underway.
Red-breasted Nuthatches have plenty of spruce, pine, and other natural food sources throughout our region this winter.
6) The Filthy Feeders and Stale Seed Catch-22.
When activity is low at feeders, we can become a bit blasé about maintenance. Not keeping feeders clean and filled with fresh seed will only make it less likely that birds will want to frequent your yard. And, with the recent prolonged wet weather, you want to make sure that mold is not becoming a problem, or that seed is not getting clogged in the feeder. No one likes to waste seed, but if it has been sitting in a feeder untouched for more than a month or so, it is time to toss it and start over. This is especially true for Nyjer, hulled sunflower, and shelled peanuts, which are most susceptible to the elements. (If you dump it in the woods, rest assured that something will eat it, or at the very least nothing will be harmed by it. If mold is visible, however, it is best to bury it). Clean your feeders, and disinfect them with a mixture of one part white vinegar to four parts water if mold was present. Fill your feeders halfway until activity builds up again if you are concerned about waste. When birds return and they find stale or spoiled seed in your feeders, they’ll continue right on by.
7) The Big Picture
We certainly do not want to downplay the significance of population declines in many of our bird species due to a whole host of large-scale issues (a topic for a different article), but rest assured that “your” birds are probably doing just fine from one year to the next over the short term. In fact, most of our resident “feeder birds” have steady, if not in some cases, increasing populations. Climate Change is affecting bird populations. Habitat loss is affecting bird populations. Cats are killing up to 4 BILLION birds a year. Windows are killing up to 1 BILLION birds a year. We could go on.
However, this has not changed in the past 6-8 weeks. Those long-term declines are often subtle and hard to detect without coordinated scientific investigation. We have absolutely zero evidence that populations have crashed in the short term. All it takes is a walk in the woods (like on our free Saturday Morning Birdwalks!) to see that the birds are out there. In fact, there are a lot of them out there, and they are doing just fine. They just don’t need our feeders right now.
8) It WILL Change!
Natural food supplies will slowly get used up, nights will get colder and longer, and our facultative migrants will come. Eventually, we’ll see some snow and ice that will make it harder to find the remaining natural food, and when all of those things happen, our feeders will be ready for them!
We hope this helps clear up some of the misinformation out there. And please do share this widely – we want to get the word out. And finally, if you have any additional questions, feel free to drop by the store.
December 13th Update: With the arrival of winter – rather suddenly – here in Maine, including a second significant snowfall in a week followed by a thick coating of ice, the birds that have been around us all along – just not at feeders! – have come back in full force. Based on our own yard, our feeders here at the store, and numerous reports from customers in-person and via Facebook, it’s clear that birds have returned en masse. Dark-eyed Juncos have inundated many feeders once again (increase from 4-6 at home to 28 by the end of the day on the 12th) as the ground got covered. And American Goldfinches, that have been numerous in the woods feeding on birch and alder, descended on nyjer feeders (as long as that seed was fresh!) as ice coated the trees. For example, we increased from 2-4 a day at home and up to 4 a day at our store to 12 and 14, respectively by the morning of the 13th). But alas, still no “winter finches” in our neck of the woods. They’re back…for now.
Are Common Redpolls on their way for the winter to cure the bird feeding blues? The Winter Finch Forecasts suggests that they will get here, eventually.