The most frequently asked question the past couple of weeks has been, "Where are all my birds?"
Folks have been complaining that their birds have disappeared from their backyards and feeders. One person stated that this was the first time in 50 years that she had no birds! Most first suspect that it must be the bird seed. Others wondered if it may be from the spraying for mosquitoes in their area.
Certainly the hummingbirds, orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks and other summer resident birds are just about all gone now. A few may linger, but most have headed south for warmer climates. Even many of the red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds and grackles have left.
The winter birds have yet to arrive. The juncos, tree sparrows, redpolls, pine siskins, evening grosbeaks and crossbills likely won't be here for another month or more. A few of the migrating sparrows will be coming through soon, but, otherwise, there is a sort of "lull" in the migration as far as feeder birds go.
But what about the year-round residents? The chickadees, cardinals, blue jays, titmice, nuthatches, goldfinches, house finches and other birds that are usually here all the time seem to have also disappeared. Where did they go?
Interestingly, I have also received several comments from people that squirrels have disappeared from their yards and feeders! While people go to great lengths (and often great expense) to keep squirrels away, they seem to miss them when they are gone! So what is going on?
This situation occurs almost every year at about this time. My theory is that early autumn is the time of year when the natural supply of seeds and nuts is most abundant. Despite the popular belief that birds only eat from your feeders and are dependent upon them, the birds are actually just using your feeders to supplement what they can find in the wild.
Birds, and squirrels, are very opportunistic. When the supply of natural seeds and nuts is plentiful, they take advantage of that. I've noticed many oak trees with blue jays (and squirrels) foraging in them for acorns now. The birds know that your feeders are there and, hopefully, will be there when they are tired of foraging and their natural food supply starts to dwindle again.
It would be akin to your picking a fresh tomato from your garden for a salad that evening. Doesn't it taste so much better than the ones you find at the grocery store? Don't you take advantage of the fresh produce from your garden, or the local farm, when it is available?
The same could be said for fresh fish from our local lakes or ocean and fresh meat from a local hunt. Doesn't the fish that you or a family member caught that day taste so much better than the filet that you pick out of the fish counter at the grocery store? If there is a hunter in the family, fresh meat is decidedly better than that from the meat case at the store. In season, we prefer fresh and local.
It doesn't mean that we don't enjoy vegetables, fish and meat during other seasons, or to supplement what we can't grow or catch ourselves. We know what we like, and we take advantage of the availability of fresh, local food when we can. When we can't, we enjoy the freshest we can find elsewhere.
Well, so do the birds.
If it seems to be worse this year, as some folks have insisted, it may be because the spring and early summer rains and cold weather had a devastating affect on nesting birds. Many birds had fewer or smaller broods than in years past, and some broods didn't make it at all. Fewer fledglings makes for fewer birds this fall and winter.
Of course there are other reasons why birds don't visit, or stop visiting, particular feeders or backyards. Cats, either your own or a neighbor's, is often problem number one. Despite hearing that "My cat is an outdoor cat" or "My cat wouldn't hurt a fly," all cats have a natural instinct to kill birds. And they do. Billions (with a "B") each year.
Seed that isn't fresh or has gone bad in feeders is probably the second biggest reason that birds stay away. Bacteria builds in feeders that have been neglected, and that is harmful to the birds. Like us at the grocery store, when we see, feel, and sense what is fresh, we avoid those foods that don't appear so. As do the birds.
Hawks and other natural predators are another reason for birds to stay away. These are usually very temporary situations and only last for minutes or hours, not days on end as some have reported.
So my guess is that it is not the spraying for mosquitoes (though we can't be sure) and not the seed that you are feeding. If you clean your feeders regularly and use fresh, good quality seed, you are helping to entice birds to a more natural offering. It doesn't mean that they won't prefer the abundance of natural seeds and nuts right now, but they will choose your menu over others as their natural supply is reduced, and they will then become more regular visitors to your feeders once again.
Steve Grinley is the owner of Bird Watcher's Supply and Gift at the Route 1 traffic circle in Newburyport and the Nature Shop at Joppa Flats.