Signs of Spring 6: Bird feeders, cycles, and counts

cardinalmale.jpgOur front  yard bird feeders have been active places all winter. Birds, gray and red squirrels, rabbits, possums, and deer have all included the feeders and the ground spill beneath them in their respective feeding schedules. Every week I put out about thirty pounds of black oil sunflower seeds and ten pounds of shelled corn for these visitors. I also have a heated bird bath for a winter water source and have seen all of the animals listed above (except for the possums) taking a drink or having a dunk in it.  (Image: D. Sillman)

The late fall arrival of the slate-colored juncos and their busy thrashing through the seed spill under the feeders is a major “sign of winter,” and, I suppose their departure (probably a month away) will be a “sign of spring.” Many of the juncos that overwinter with us only go a day’s flight or so north to summer and breed up in the Allegheny Forest or in the northern tier forests of our state. So, I can go visit them almost anytime.

Through December and January I saw very few mourning doves at the feeders, but they have recently returned in good numbers. Their arrival has apparently pleased my pair of sharp-shinned hawks as I have already cleaned up two piles of mourning dove feathers made by sharp-shin strikes and kills.

Cardinals are the dominant bird at our feeders. On some mornings there are thirty or more of them in a mixed gender flock filling the feeding perches, hunting on the ground, pausing on the bird bath rim, or waiting on the bare branches of the nearby lilac bush. The flock comes and goes as a unit and spends considerable amounts of the day roosted in a large, multiflora rose bush at the bottom of our field. The cardinals are year-round residents around our house and, so, provide a great deal of visual stimulation but very little information on seasonal change.

This winter I have seen twenty-one species of birds at my feeders. A major difference this year has been the much smaller numbers of house finches coming in to feed. Last year I had flocks of them (and was feeding almost fifty pounds of sunflower seeds a week!). I was asked last week by a Penn State colleague why the cardinals that came to his millet seed feeders in large numbers all summer disappeared with the onset of winter. Now millet is a very nutritious bird seed. It is rich in protein, and loaded with vitamins and minerals, but it is low in fat and I speculated that is why the cardinals abandoned those feeders with the onset of cold weather. They probably started eating at some neighbor’s feeders that were full of black oil sunflower seeds (a seed that is very rich in oils and calories) in order to more efficiently sustain themselves through the stresses of winter. The cardinals return to the millet feeders will definitely be a sign of spring!

There is an event coming up at the end of this week in which all of us who watch birds can participate. From February 15 (this Friday) to February 18 (next Monday) the sixteenth annual “Great Backyard Bird Count” will be held. The GBBC is a “citizen’s science” project led by the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and sponsored by a number of institutions including the National Science Foundation and Wild Birds Unlimited. Participation is open to anyone who cares to watch and count and identify their birds and then turn in a tally sheet (details are available on the GBBC web site .

Last year 104,151 tally sheets were submitted and 17.4 million birds (623 species!) were counted. Some of the synthesis and discussion of these data are available out on the web site. Very few of us, of course, will see snowy owls or exotic warblers in our yards, but we can see and count our cardinals, juncos, chickadees, and song sparrows and contribute to this important North American census of our birds. The count itself is a Sign of Spring, and there are many more to come!  

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