As I write this, there are street sweepers going by. It is February! This time last year we watched snowplows make their way through the streets continuously. Punxsutawny Phil saw his shadow last week and predicted six more weeks of winter. What winter? If it is six more weeks of what we have had so far, we might as well start celebrating spring today!
So, it is no surprise that at least 10 times a week we receive inquiries from people asking where all their birds have gone. Usually, we get these questions in the fall, but not throughout the winter. Unlike last winter, when birds were flocking to their feeders, there is a dearth of birds visiting feeders this year.
We have noticed this at the store feeders, as well. We have a few goldfinches, whose numbers swell only to a couple of dozen just before a cold snap. We have a small flock of tree sparrows and an occasional song sparrow or white-throated sparrow. A single female downy woodpecker visits our suet and our peanut feeder, and a chickadee or two come by to politely take a sunflower. Mr. and Mrs. Cardinal are here early in the day and again near dusk, but otherwise we are lacking the numbers and variety of birds that we usually enjoy each winter.
The reason for the lack of birds this winter is that the weather has just been too nice, and the supply of natural food has been more than ample. The mild weather also permits them to take in less food, as they don't need as many calories to stay warm. Birds just supplement their natural food by visiting our feeders. Normally, in the fall, when the supply of natural seeds is at its peak, birds "disappear" from feeders to take advantage of this natural supply. By November and December, it gets so cold — and we often have snow — that the natural food supply freezes or is covered in snow. Thus, birds flock to feeders in greater numbers in the winter months.
Weather isn't the only factor. The sheer abundance of natural seed crops this year also helps determine how much activity we get at our feeders. This year, spruce trees are dripping with cones, and birches and ash trees have a large crop of seed to please the finches. The seed crop is also plentiful farther north, which is why we haven't seen the winter finches such as redpolls, siskins and crossbills. On the reverse side of this, the acorn crop was dramatically low in eastern Massachusetts, and the Internet is buzzing about how few blue jays there are here this year. Low acorn crops also affect wild turkeys, deer and squirrels (though there seem to be plenty of all three around).
Since activity at the feeders has been so slow and the feeders remain relatively full, we tend to pay less attention to maintaining them. Not keeping the feeder clean and filled with fresh seed will not improve our chances for attracting birds. This usually isn't a problem during a "normal" winter when the temperature stays at or near freezing and precipitation falls in the form of snow. This year, the milder temperatures and precipitation in the form of rain provide the ingredients for mold to form in the bottom of the feeder. This is especially true for Nyger (thistle), sunflower hearts and shelled peanuts that tend to absorb moisture more quickly than some other seeds.
Merely "topping off" a feeder with fresh seed will not solve the problem. Feeders should be emptied and thoroughly cleaned with soap and water. A solution of one part vinegar and four parts water, or one that has one part bleach to 10 parts water, can be used to kill any mold and bacteria. Thoroughly rinse the feeder, let it dry completely and then add fresh seed. Fill the feeder only halfway until activity returns, to minimize waste. You can even spread a little seed underneath the feeder to help attract some birds.
We may not have as many birds to enjoy at our feeders this winter, but we should take some comfort in knowing that the birds are doing reasonably well during this abnormally warmer season. Of course, we should keep our feeders clean with fresh seed just in case. After all, this is New England, and Mother Nature could turn on us at any time.
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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.