Bird Watcher's General Store

Rough Winter for Birds
03/06/15


Dear Bird Folks,

As I look out my window, trapped inside by yet another snowstorm, I can’t help being worried about the birds on my feeder. Should I worry?

– Warren, Wellfleet, MA

Yes, Warren,

You should be worried about the birds and you should also be worried about me and my tired back. Even though I look like I’m only eighteen years old, I’m actually a few years older than that and the sudden demand for birdseed is wearing me out. My business is typically quiet during the winter, but not this winter. All this nasty weather has created a run on seed. Birdseed is now as popular as other Cape Cod winter necessities such as snow shovels, rock salt…and, of course, wine.

What a crazy winter it has been. Some storms were so bad that many of my customers couldn’t even get to their feeders. The best they could do was open the door, toss out a cup of seed, and hope for the best. I laughed at these stories because during the height of the worst storm I did the same thing; only in my case, the wind blew most of the seed back into my face. Apparently, the old adage of not spitting into the wind also applies to tossing birdseed. I need to remember that. Not only has this wicked weather driven large numbers of the “usual” birds to our yards, but the deep layers of snow and ice have also brought in several surprise visitors. Gray Catbirds, Brown Thrashers, Yellow-rumped Warblers and, appropriately enough, Snow Buntings are coming to backyards because their natural food supplies are covered up. Then there are the robins. Just about everyone has reported robins at their feeders. Sometimes robins descend in flocks, but some people are only getting one robin…one very big and very bossy single robin. And the aggressive bird will often harass other birds that are also trying to visit the feeder. This doesn’t sit well with many of my customers. They ask me what they should do about it. My response is: “Do about it? Nothing.” We aren’t the bird police. Birds have survived for millions of years without suburbanites setting up a list of feeder rules. I say just let it go and watch the show. The birds will work things out on their own. They always have. (Nobody ever likes that answer.)

However, if an aggressive robin is really getting on your nerves and you truly feel compelled to do something about it, perhaps you could give the domineering bird its own feeder. Like their cousins the bluebirds, robins will like suet, shelled sunflower and water. But that’s not all. A customer from Sandwich (MA) has been doing some experimenting with other types of robin food. He reports having luck with raisins, grapes and bits of apples. After hearing these suggestions I decided to do some testing on my own. When this latest snowstorm had finally subsided, I took a dinner plate out of our china cabinet and placed it outside near my other feeders. The plate contained equal parts raisins, chopped-up apples and cranberries (I didn’t have any grapes). I then waited to see what would happen. The first thing I saw was my wife coming down the hall and she wasn’t happy. For some reason she was upset that one of her Wedgwood dinner plates was being used as a birdfeeder. I explained that her plate was part of a delicate experiment that couldn’t be interrupted. She fired back saying that I should have put the food on one of our plastic Tupperware plates. I just looked at her and said, “Tupperware? My birds don’t eat on Tupperware.” Things began to deteriorate after that.

Despite this family feud, my experiment was productive. A robin locked onto the fruit plate like a laser and immediately started chowing down. Of the three choices on the menu, the hands-down winner was the apple bits. The robin ate them with such gusto I could almost hear it saying, “Why have I been eating worms all these years?” Most of the other fruit was ignored, although a cardinal that was brave enough to sneak in while the domineering robin wasn’t looking ate a few raisins. (The cranberries are all still there.) It’s important to note that the apple needs to be chopped up into small pieces, about the size of frozen corn kernels. (You can’t just toss out a whole apple. We are feeding birds, not horses.) Also the plate has to be Wedgwood, or it’s not going to work. (Tupperware? Oh, please.)

Songbirds aren’t the only birds that are struggling right now. Several people have called me about ducks invading their yards. Dabbling ducks such as Mallards and Black Ducks typically feed in shallow water, but unfrozen shallow water has been hard to find lately and the ducks are getting hungry. As a result, many ducks are cleaning up the scraps beneath our birdfeeders. Under normal circumstances I discourage people from feeding waterfowl, but these are not normal circumstances. This might be our worst winter ever, so if you “accidently” toss a handful of cracked corn in the ducks’ direction, I’ll promise not to tell anyone.

There is no doubt this winter has been tough on the birds, Warren, but a little water, suet and bits of apple will help many birds make it through. And let’s not forget about birdseed. A bag of birdseed not only helps the birds survive the winter, it also keeps my chiropractor busy…very, very busy.




Artwork by Catherine Clark


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