So what is going on and, in particular, what is going on this year? Well we often do have a relatively mild spell in the run up to the holiday season, but this year it is even more mild than usual. Why should this affect the birds? Well, strange as this might sound, feeding birds is not as straightforward as you might think and often the birds 'know' better than we do. Rest assured, I am not going to tell you not to feed your backyard birds, but I would certainly encourage you to think about what food you put out, how, and when.
Exactly why there are no birds at your feeder right now will depend on where you are and what species of birds you typically get. For many of us in the Mid-Atlantic States, a large number of the birds at our feeders will be winter visitors from the north. These birds are escaping the worst of the weather and will remain until well into spring before heading back north. Species such as Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows are typical of this group, but may also include birds such as Northern Cardinals and American Robins, which are both resident and migratory. Put simply, these birds appear not to be at our feeders yet simply because it's still so mild so they really don't seem to have headed our way in any great number yet.
Other feeder birds include our local residents, such as Tufted Titmouse, Carolina Chickadees, Carolina Wrens, Downy Woodpeckers and the like. These birds will still be in your area, but they will be feeding elsewhere. What does this mean? Well, the answer is twofold; firstly, feeders are not exactly the most comfortable of places to hang out for many birds. There is much jostling for position and any number of potentially stressful situations. It's a bit like comparing a dinner for two at a quiet, back street restaurant with the hustle and bustle of a food stand at a carnival parade! Secondly, there's plenty of natural food still out there, since there's been very little frost to shrivel the berries, and no snow to cover the ground.
So, there's plenty of natural food out in the wider countryside, where birds can feed comfortably, at a natural pace, without all the hurly burly of the backyard feeder and all the undue attention and rivalry from other birds. But there are other issues with feeders too. The unnaturally high density of birds can be a magnet for local predators, whether it be Cooper's Hawks or the neighbor's cat - again putting undue stress on the birds, since they need to be constantly on the lookout for such threats. Then there's the problem of infectious diseases; such diseases may be more readily spread around bird populations if they are not only in close proximity with each other, but also stressed. Finally, research in the UK and New Zealand has revealed that the type of feeding opportunities that backyard feeders provide tend to encourage the 'bullies', the species which dominate at such locations, which in North America includes non-native species such as European Starlings and House Sparrows.
It may be starting to sound as though we shouldn't be feeding birds, but that isn't entirely the case. You should consider very carefully how and when to feed; don't put your feeders close to places where predators might easily lurk within catching range, such as close to shrubby borders or edges; don't put out large amounts of food - it's better to put little and often, and let the food run out for a short while between feeds. It's also good to put out as wide a range of foods as possible to provide a balanced diet. But do remember, if you do put out food, it is vital to keep it going during hard weather, since that artificially high population of birds that you have created may become dependent on the food during such periods.
For the very best advice on feeding birds, we have a great range of publications available at our stores, and our staff will be happy to advice you on best practice, based on sound research.
If you have few birds at your feeders right now, rest assured that it is not because their populations have suddenly and dramatically crashed; the birds are out there somewhere, rummaging in the undergrowth and enjoying a balanced diet from nature's food closet, and they will be heading your way eventually...
Birds arriving at backyard feeding or drinking opportunities find themselves in unusually close proximity to each other. This is OK while numbers are small...
...as more birds are attracted to the treats, pressure increase - here a White-throated Sparrow literally gets trampled underfoot by a boisterous House Sparrow...
...and once the 'pack' really arrives, there's little room for anyone else and less aggressive species will choose to move away from your yard, as has been shown from recent studies. Here, a juvenile Brown-headed Cowbird is the only one brave enough to stick it out at the lido!
If you put up artificial feeders, those with individual feed ports have been shown to be less stressful for the birds than hopper types - Tufted Titmouse, American Goldfinch and Pine Siskin all manage to find a space here at the Northwood Center feeder.
The high number of birds visiting some feeders creates ideal conditions for infectious diseases to spread. In Eastern North America, a form of conjunctivitis is virulent in House Finch populations and it is imperative that high standards of hygiene are maintained at backyard feeders to prevent this, and other diseases, from becoming a major concern.
Through research studies, aggressive species have been shown to become even more prevalent in areas where there are significant backyard feeder opportunities. Although Common Grackles are native to our region, they naturally form roving flocks in the winter that move constantly through an extended home range. Keeping backyard feeders well stocked could be encouraging them to target specific locations more often than they would naturally; this not only enables an even larger population of these aggressive birds to develop, but can have negative impacts on other species, causing them to move away from the area.
Though we might think we know best, nature usually does offer the best solution to natural problems. Feeders are fine in moderation, but do consider also providing natural foods so that a wide range of birds can enjoy your natural space - and you'll enjoy them too! Eastern Bluebirds are regular visitors to our pokeweed patch, which is growing well away from the feeders on the other side of the house and away from any 'bullies' that might drop by.
And finally, don't forget that water is vital to birds, especially during prolonged cold spells. Cedar Waxwings are exciting birds that can be attracted to the garden by keeping one or two native red cedars in the corners of the yard, but they need plenty of water to help them cope with the astringent berries.