This cold snap that has set upon us really doesn't look as though it wants to shift any time soon and with tonight's temperatures for Cape May forecast to bottom out somewhere around -22F (-30C) it really isn't a night to be outside. And yet our wildlife will be out there, and hoping to make it through the dark hours. On my way home from work this evening I detoured via some of the local streets and found a number of American Woodcocks, hunkered down and trying to save heat. I chanced across two of them with bills turned, tucked well into the back feathers, and each pressed hard up along side the other so that at least one side of each bird benefited from the heat of the other bird. A vision that defined just what a large part of the US is going through right now.
As ever when conditions are cold like this, one of the commonest questions we get asked is "Should I feed the birds?" Well, as is so often the case, the answer is not as straightforward as the question. So here is the first shock: Though feeding birds is not wrong, it generally is not actually necessary. When we feed birds in our back yards, we do so for personal gratification, the birds don't need it, they did perfectly well without it for an awfully long time. But that's not a criticism, just a statement of fact. It's great to feed birds and draw them closer so that we can enjoy them, but it's not vital to them and, in fact, there are some points that could be argued that demonstrate that feeding birds is not always a good thing - but those are points for another time. Bird populations are dynamic and, if a species occurs in your area as part of a naturally-occurring population, then that species needs to deal with whatever nature throws at it - and the laws of natural selection will come into play; some will perish, some will thrive, such is nature. If there are losses, they will be compensated for by a higher survival rate during the coming (or future) breeding seasons. And so the balance is maintained.
So we largely feed birds for our own satisfaction, so should I start feeding birds now that it is cold? Well, again, you don't have to to but, if you want to, please do. Again, you don't need to feed them, the smart ones will make it through, either by being resilient, or by heading south...
However, what I will say is, if you already do feed, then please, please, please, don't stop!!! Not in the middle of a really cold spell with the ground covered in snow. And this is the key point. Once you have started feeding, you have artificially attracted a higher than natural population of birds to your yard. So, to suddenly stop feeding would really be pulling the rug out from under their feet. A bit like starting a soup kitchen on a cold night, waiting for a queue to build up, then saying you've run out! If you have been feeding, it is critical that you keep feeding during hard weather periods; so don't start feeding if you have a habit of heading south to the sun for a few weeks in the winter. Or have a back up plan; have a neighbor who can be relied upon to fill your feeders while you are away, or be sure that other nearby neighbors are maintaining their feeders such that there is enough food to go around and your birds can find it. All that's needed is just a little bit of planning.
One other point to bear in mind is the matter of water. Birds - like most animals - need a good supply of water, as well as food. Usually they can find this naturally and it is not necessary to provide it - though again, there is nothing wrong with a bird bath if it gives you pleasure to watch the birds. You may also be surprised to hear that providing water is not critical when there is snow around either, for birds can survive for some time on getting the water they need from snow - so you don't need to be burning electricity by providing heated bird baths. However, it can be good to provide water during very cold, frosty periods, when there is no snow, but the ground is frozen hard. If you are around at home regularly enough, you can do this simply by adding warm (not boiling!) water periodically to keep it from freezing.
Learning about the birds in the back yard is how many people first get into birding, and it is from there that great naturalists and conservationists - or people who just care and want to look after our natural heritage - start out. If you are making those first steps and are befuddled by great arrays of field guides, binoculars, and all manner of birdy things, Pete Dunne is running his annual Break into Birding workshop this weekend. Pete's knowledge and teaching skills are the stuff of legend and there is still just time to squeak in on a place for this weekend - and much of the time will be indoors in the warm, so what better way to spend a cold weekend? Contact us as soon as possible for a last minute place on 609 861 0700. See you there!