Speaking of Nature: An absence of birds at your feeder?

  • This male house finch keeps his eyes open for danger. Something above him has caught his attention. FOR THE RECORDER/BILL DANIELSON


For The Recorder
Monday, February 19, 2018

Lately I’ve been fielding a lot of questions about birds at feeders. More to the point, I’ve been asked again and again where the birds might be. “Have you heard anything about bird numbers this year?” “Can you think of why there are no birds at my feeders?” These sorts of questions even popped up around the staff room at lunch the other day. Clearly, there’s a theme at this time of the year.

At first I can tell that my answers are disappointing. I have been feeding faithfully for over 10 years in the same spot and I do not have to suspend my operations because (so far) I have not attracted the attention of bears. As a result, there is a decade-old tradition of food availability at my house, and I have a huge crowd of birds that I can call “regulars.”

As a result, I have been able to make some pretty interesting observations about the patterns that unfold in the bird community outside my kitchen window. I suppose I must admit that I have also sacrificed a lot of sleep to make these observations. So, on the weekends, when my beautiful wife is enjoying the luxury of sleeping late, I am up before sunrise so I can take notes.

The first birds to arrive are always the sparrows and finches. Often they appear so early that I cannot easily tell which species is which. However, 10 years of studying the silhouettes of small birds has helped me hone my skills. Juncos have a distinct look, as do white-throated sparrows. Even American tree sparrows are noteworthy for their somewhat slender outline, but I still find myself holding up binoculars from time to time.

There is usually a lull in the action before the next group of major players arrives. You could almost set your clock by the consistency of this timing, but what I have found most fascinating is that the birds do not stick to a particular time on the clock. Rather, they conform quite faithfully to a window of time surrounding sunrise. Imagine going to a Broadway play for which every line and every move is carefully scripted. Now, imagine that every day it opens, the play starts 3 minutes earlier than it did the previous day.

Typically, the next birds to arrive (one cue) are blue jays and mourning doves. I’ve also recently added American goldfinches to this act as well. The goldfinches assemble in numbers of 30 to 40 birds. Then eight to 12 jays swoop in and the goldfinches scatter like snowflakes before a leaf blower. Then, what I have started calling the “mourning dove swarm” arrives. There are rarely fewer than 30 birds in the swarm, and one day last week, I stopped counting at 50. They arrive, they attack the seed like little vacuum cleaners, and then they disperse, never spending much more than 5 minutes in the open.

It’s usually no more than 30 minutes before I have to put another round of seed out. The birds scatter, they watch me do my work, and they are back as soon as I’m inside again. As long as there are blue jays around, and especially if there are crows around, the smaller birds are content to squabble with one another over who gets which particular morsel. There can be as many as 30 birds present, but they are all of different species.

Then there are those times when a jay makes a particularly shrill call and the birds explode in all directions. This is the warning call and it indicates that a lookout has seen something that might be dangerous. There are lots of false alarms, especially from the nervous and flighty mourning doves, but this is understandable when one appreciates the stakes involved.

Last week, while sitting at my kitchen window, I found myself looking out at a birdless scene. It was well past the time for the “swarm” to arrive, so I knew something was afoot. The trees in back of my house were filled with mourning doves, but they weren’t coming to feed. Then, the swarm made its move and just as the first dove landed on the railing, a huge Cooper’s hawk came swooping around the corner of the house in the opposite direction.

I thought I was going to see a hawk catch a dove, but the timing was off and the hawk missed. It quickly engaged another target in the form of a blue jay sitting in a lilac bush next to my deck. The hawk streaked toward the bush and at the last minute, folded up its wings to squeeze through the slats holding up the railing. The maneuver was just complex enough to give the jay the split second it needed to escape. The hawk, appearing quite irritated, paused for a moment. I was raising my camera but the bird would have none of it and moved on to set up its next ambush.

If you have “no birds” at your feeders, it may actually be the result of having more birds than you are aware of. The careless and the unwise are picked off early in the winter, leaving the clever and the lucky to survive to the next day. Hunting gets more difficult for the hawks, but they also get better at doing it. All of this happens early in the morning. It is possible that you have lots of birds in your yard, but that they all have to take cover from predators before you’re even up for the morning.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 20 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the US Forest Service and the Massachusetts State Parks and currently teaches high school biology and physics. Visit www.speakingofnature.com for more information, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.