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What’s the deal with all the birds this winter?

  • Evening Grosbeak. Photo by Lillian Stokes—

  • Common Redpoll. Photo by Lillian Stokes—

  • Pine Grosbeak. Photo by Lillian Stokes—

  • Male Pine Grosbeak. Photo by Lillian Stokes

  • A Pine Siskin. Photo by Lillian Stokes

  • Evening Grosbeak numbers were strong again this winter. Formerly one of the most common winter bird species, they had suffered from declines over the past several decades, but numbers appear to be building again. Photo by Phil Brown (above)

  • Photo by Phil Brown—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 2/22/2021 5:48:47 PM

Birdfeeders around the region are being ransacked for every morsel of food possible, so much so that finding your preferred food source for winter visitors has become a little more scarce.

At Agway in Peterborough, manager Julia Traffie said there has been a 100 percent nationwide uptick in birdseed sales since March 2020.

“I’ve been here over 30 years and it’s epic,” Traffie said. “I’m constantly trying to get birdfeeders and constantly trying to get birdseed from every supplier we have.”

To the untrained eye, it merely appears that birds are eating more seed this winter, but to those in the field of tracking, counting and studying the feathered visitors, unique occurrences in recent months provide reasons to celebrate.

Phil Brown, hawk watch coordinator for the Harris Center for Conservation Education and director of land management for NH Audubon, said he’s heard about the lack of food supply from friends amid the increased demand. One reason Brown points to is the COVID-19 effect.

“Everybody is home a little bit more and looking for ways to connect with nature,” he said. As local natural areas and parks became overwhelmed with increased interest in the world of social distancing, Brown said he expects people began exploring their own backyards more.

“Backyard bird feeding is taking off in general and bird watching is having a moment this year,” Brown said. “It’s one of the safest ways to interact with nature.”

Lillian Stokes of Hancock couldn’t agree more.

“The pandemic has a lot to do with it,” Stokes said. “Going back to March and April, the pandemic sent people into panic mode. And what we turned to was nature. Your backyard became your universe and a gateway for people to connect.”

Francie Von Mertens said having a feeder is a great way to get kids interested in birds at a young age, and in the age of COVID, anything to keep them engaged is worth trying.

“My grandkids, especially when they were young, they were so interested by my bird feeders,” Von Mertens said. “They’re just so drawn to it.”

But dig a little deeper and there’s more of an explanation for the increase in feeder visits.

“This winter we’ve seen an influx of birds from the north,” Brown said. “This year is one of those cycles where there was a food crop failure in their area and it’s neat seeing those visitors from the far north.”

Stokes, who has co-authored more than 30 bird guides with her husband Donald, said a good population year or a couple good years likely led to food sources being eaten at a faster rate causing certain species to search for new locations.

“Once they sort of ate their way through the available food, they have to flee,” Stokes said.

What it led to is what Stokes said is known as a super flight. It’s when all eight of the irruptive finch species migrate from above the Boreal Forest further south. Stokes said the first one she saw in the fall was the Purple Finch and since then she has observed the Pine Siskin, Common Redpoll, Hoary Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak, Red Crossbill and White-winged Crossbill. Not all came at once and some have moved further south, but Stokes said its been like Christmas every day.

“This what they call a bit epic,” Stokes said. “This doesn’t happen very much, but I’ve personally seen all of the eight irruptive species in New Hampshire this year.” She added that its been the best migration for the Evening Grosbeak in 20 years, as well as in at least a decade for the Redpolls and Pine Siskins.

Eric Masterson, land program manager at the Harris Center, said it’s truly been a remarkable winter for birding. He saw for the first time a Sage Thrasher along the Connecticut River in Hinsdale, a species that is a western bird that is typically in Arizona this time of year. It’s been fascinating to watch the winter unfold for Masterson, especially being home more recovering from a serious hang gliding accident.

“This year was incredible for winter birds showing up,” Masterson said. “It’s a remarkable phenomenon.”

As coordinator of the Keene Christmas Bird Count, Brown said the data collected pointed to some interesting anomalies. First of all, this year’s 62 total species on Dec. 20 set a new count day record, topping the total of 61 species, which has been recorded four times. The 9,477 individual birds counted was also a record high and well above the long-term average of 5,097 and the past ten year average of 6,391. New high counts were collected for the Black-capped Chickadee (1,503) and Tufted Titmouse, which its 573 sightings tripled the previous high. Both White-breasted (362) and Red-breasted (532) Nuthatch counts blew away past records, and the 1,096 Blue Jay seen more than doubled the previous best total.

“The number of record high counts was unprecedented,” Brown said. The NH Audubon Statewide Bird Survey was conducted over Valentine’s Day weekend and Brown said he is interested to see what that data will show. “We’re seeing birds we don’t see every winter or every five winters” he said.

Stokes said Blue Jays live in the area year round, but some years there are a lot more looking for food. Blue Jays will eat from feeders and have the ability to store seeds, Stokes said, meaning they can take a lot more than other species in one visit.

“We have more Blue Jays than we’d like to have at our feeders,” Von Mertens said.

Masterson said the Black-capped Chickadee and Red-breasted Nuthatch are known to frequent feeders and with more around it can lead to more bags of seed required to get through the winter. As for this year, he said his bird feeder bill is about $50 a month.

“In terms of species diversity, it’s no doubt the numbers at my feeders are up,” Masterson said. “And I feed the birds because I like birds and they’re good companions.”

Outside of the statistical numbers, Brown has noticed a difference merely in the amount of seed required to get through the winter, he said. Typically one large bag of seed would be enough “but this year it’s probably at least a three fold increase,” he said.

“Its been a great feeder year in this part of the world, no doubt about it,” Brown said.

Stokes said that some do go to feeders, but the finch species aren’t the sole reason for the faster feeder depletion. She said cold and snowy winters, especially when it changes over to ice on the ground, can impact birds from finding food sources, forcing them to feeders more. The abundance of white pine cones this year also made for a tempting stop for the Red Crossbill, which has a unique cross at the tip of its beak designed to break open the pine cones.

As someone who has friends and colleagues all over who share his passion for birding, Brown said that isn’t the case everywhere.Stokes said the Merlin Bird ID app through Cornell Lab increased downloads by 102%. She also saw statistics that on the whole the birding industry rose 15 percent.

At Agway, that increased interest in birding is forcing Traffie to get creative to source seed and feeder as traditional brands sell out quickly. 

“We have it, they just might not get the brand they’ve been getting for 20-plus years,” Traffie said.

In addition to the supplies, Traffie said they have sold a lot of identification charts because “people want to know what are at their feeders,” she said.

Von Mertens said she always buys hulled sunflower seeds to use as birdseed.

“It’s the No. 1 preferred seed,” Von Mertens said. “That’s the seed to get.” So you can imagine her surprise when it wasn’t in stock.

“Never, ever has that happened,” she said.

Her first inclination was COVID-19 and isolation leading to more people buying bird feeders.

“It’s very logical to start feeding the birds,” Von Mertens said. “It’s wildlife at its most accessible.”

She said birding is a great way to block out the stressors of every day life. And while most think that putting out feeders helps the birds, it’s really more of a benefit to humans.

“Birds don’t need us, but we need them,” she said.


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