Monday, January 12, 2015

Worried about the birds?

By Beth Sullivan
As the new year gets off to a really cold start, I have already backed away from my resolution and done no big trail walks. I am mostly observing out my window right now.
When we got out to do the AudubonChristmas Bird Count, it got me thinking, again, about birds in the cold. They amazed me as I trundled, bundled in layers, complaining about the cold, and these little mighty ones flitted and hopped as I tried to identify and count them. I realized their entire mission, on a cold day, was to find food.
Bluebirds will flock to suet.

Brown Creepers head up the tree.

A lot has been written recently about the pros and cons of feeding birds: who does it benefit really? Do we artificially create a dependency that could be detrimental to the birds over all?

Winter feeding improves survival

While there are a few, small studies that suggest feeding the birds can cause some problems, overall, all studies seem to agree that in this severe weather, the birds have a far greater chance of survival if we supplement their diet and make it easier for them to find food.
One of the complaints about artificial feeding is that the diets we offer are not varied enough. I think if we take time to observe the birds in the wild, we may be better able to offer the variety they need, in our own yards where we can observe them and help them at the same time.
Cedar trees offer food and evergreen shelter to several species.

Cedar Waxwings will come to the Cedar fruits.

Out in the wooded preserves, several species of woodpeckers, Chickadees, Titmice, and Nuthatches seem to travel together and work the trees looking for hidden insects, larvae, or eggs. A Downy circles around and under and cruises all over the tree. The Nuthatches always seem to face down and head down and around. Brown Creepers, a more uncommon tree trunk gleaner, always head up and around. Chickadees and Titmice act like clowns and hang upside down, going out to ends of branches to cover all angles- all this activity to search for food. I have taken my suet blocks- plus extra peanut butter mixed with other seeds and grains-and smeared it on the trunks and branches of trees in my view. The birds will find it, each in their own manner, and get a variety.
The Bluebirds we have been watching out at Knox Preserve have been landing on the Staghorn Sumac seed heads. We watched them pick and choose their seeds until a flock of Starlings came in and chased them away.
Chickadees hang onto branches and poke under bark.

Downy Woodpeckers can hang upside down to look for food.

The same day we watched Cedar Waxwings land in the evergreen grove and consume the blue colored fruits of the Red Cedar/Juniper trees and then move to the Bayberry bushes nearby. It is the female trees that bear the fruit, so if you want to provide food and shelter in your yard in a more natural way, plant the females of the Cedars and Bayberries. Robins are attracted to the same foods, as well as crab apples and Viburnums.

Native plantings - nature's supermarket

As we think ahead to spring, we can plan some native plantings that will give the birds the varied diet they will appreciate, that mimics what we find out on the preserves as we explore. If you have already planted native shrubs and they have retained berries, you will already be enjoying a greater variety of winter birds than seed alone will attract. I am sure they will not complain about sunflower seeds and suet during these really cold days, and you may get rewarded by some beautiful Blue on a bitter winter day.

You can help, too

The Audubon Society sponsors  this February's Great Backyard Bird Count. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology sponsors the winter long,  Feeder Watch program.  These are great ways for citizen scientists to increase our understanding of the birds nearest to us.
Robins will look for berries when worms are not available.

Photographs by Beth Sullivan.

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