There was a moderate sense of alarm evident in the voices of several recent callers. They were used to looking out the window in late November and early December and seeing a tussle going on around the backyard bird feeder as a variety of species jockeyed for position.
But this first chapter of winter brought just a few birds to some feeders, and others were simply vacant. Steve Shawaker filled his backyard bird buffet in Sylvania with sunflower seeds, but expressed some concern recently that he had not yet seen a customer. Then on Friday, Shawaker reported that a few cardinals, blue jays and wood peckers had started showing up.
The jury is still out on whether or not there is an issue of importance here, or whether this is simply another anomaly of nature. Just as soon as we think we have things all figured out, we tend to get a curveball that leaves us baffled, but usually it is a momentary condition.
When in doubt, ask an expert, and we have one right here in the area in Kenn Kaufman, who is widely recognized as one of the most respected gurus on bird identification and distribution. The American Birding Association presented him with a lifetime achievement award — twice — so he knows his birds.
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Kaufman said recently that there is no hard data available just yet to document any kind of significant dip in the inventory of birds in the region, but from his observations he believes that land bird numbers have been down in Ottawa and Lucas counties. A strong movement of migrating birds was observed here earlier in the fall, Kaufman said, and once that group passed through, the remaining numbers of resident and wintering birds did seem low.
Kaufman said a couple different scenarios could be in play, and one of these might be influencing the anecdotal observations of many backyard birders.
Citing the work of Ontario ornithologist Ron Pittaway, Kaufman said the robust crop of seeds and berries produced by the lush growth in the boreal forest of eastern Canada will limit the southward flights of certain species. This mostly impacts the “winter finches” — crossbills, redpolls, and siskins — which are not commonly crowded around backyard feeders.
But based on this abundance of food in the forests, Kaufman pointed out that some backyard regulars such as Blue Jays and American Goldfinches might not be as common here as in past winters. Pittaway said that since the acorn, beechnut, hazelnut, and many soft mast crops are prolific across central Ontario, many northern birds will not migrate south this fall.
The other major factor that could be impacting the current volume of activity at the backyard feeder is the quirky weather of 2013. Kaufman said due to the cool, rainy weather in the early part of the season, which he said also made it a poor year for butterflies, many local nesting birds might have experienced poor breeding success.
“That could be part of the reason why there don't seem to be a lot of Northern Cardinals, House Finches, and other garden birds around now, compared to the average November,” Kaufman said.
The experts suggest we take a deep breath and wait for some numbers to crunch. The Christmas Bird Count should provide a reasonable measuring stick.
“Looking at the numbers of each species reported, relative to the number of hours in the field, that gives us a rough index for comparison from year to year,” Kaufman said. “I'll be very interested to see if the counts suggest reduced numbers of some of these species.”
Until then, keep the feeders clean and full. This is a period of transition, when many species could still be utilizing natural food sources, but all it takes is an ice storm, a hard freeze, or a spell of heavy weather to possibly send them flocking to your feeder.
Maintaining backyard bird feeders is a way to provide our feathered wildlife with a little extra nutrition, and the show they put on is free. Many stores now sell feeders, as well as seed mixes that attract the birds we see most frequently in this region.
Despite the puzzling lack of birds that some backyard feeders have experienced, be confident that if you put out the feeders and pack them with treats, the birds will come. And it does not have to be expensive or exotic fare.
The Audubon organization says more than 100 North American bird species will use seed, suet, fruit, and nectar supplied by backyard feeders to supplement their natural diets. Audubon recommends using a variety of seeds and other foods, which can include pieces of apple and orange, chopped nuts, lard, bacon grease, bread and peanut butter.
The ideal backyard bird feeder will have water for drinking located nearby, and the feeder will be positioned in a place where predators will not be able to ambush feeding birds. Many backyard birders also use metal guards to keep marauding squirrels from chasing off the birds and raiding the feeder, while some use whole ears of corn placed some distance away to feed the squirrels and keep them away from the birds.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.