Cold weather increases birdfeeder activity

Backyard Birder
Wednesday, October 31, 2018 10:34AM

Birdfeeder activity picked up on schedule with the arrival of cold weather a few weeks ago.

Most backyard birds raise their young on nutrient-dense insects, and return to their seed-eating ways after young have dispersed. Now that cold has arrived, I admit that I no longer set an alarm as a reminder to take the feeders in each evening with bears in mind. Adult males are the last to den, and likely are still out and about.

Monday morning, dark and drizzly, was notable for zero traffic at the feeders. Unusual, as high metabolism birds have to refuel after a nighttime fast. Early morning is their most active time.

Hawks migrating through often take a travel break during rainy spells, and I wondered if one was hanging out near the feeders. That would explain the absence of the bird activity that adds pleasure to our lives.

New Hampshire’s state bird showed up two weeks ago, passing through just as they did six months ago. I thought the first wave was males and females, as pictured here, but both male and female first-year purple finches look like adult females, streaky and sparrow-like. But too big for a sparrow. Sparrows also are ground-feeders.

The purple finch male’s raspberry red is very pleasing.

As a generalization, males, females and young of most songbird species migrate separately, and spend the winter at different latitudes. Males tend to overwinter more northerly than the others, perhaps for a speedy return north in spring.

Sparrows are the majority species out there these days, scaring up along roadsides or scrubby trailsides as they glean seeds. Roadsides offer a bounty of seeds including ragweed and smartweed.

They’ve been regulars under the feeder and out in our weedy, seedy backyard and gardens, juncos and white-throated sparrows, mostly. The two seem closely aligned despite the junco’s two-toned plumage, slate gray above and white below, and the white throats’ more typical sparrow look.

Quick research finds they are known to hybridize, despite dissimilar looks. This suggests kinship, and further reading finds they likely diverged 1.6-6.6 mybp. I learn that mybp means Million Years Before Present. A long time.

The seemingly unlimited diversity of birds is one of the reasons so many people are drawn to them, the wild world in its most visible and relatable form.

Something to ponder as we hear about species facing extinction: It takes a long time to form a species.

Traffic picked up at the feeders by Monday midday, but not the usual numbers. It seems birds were lying low on a dreary, drizzly day.

There’s one notable bird that’s been hanging out, a newcomer, a warbler eating both seeds and suet cake. A yellow-rumped warbler. A first for us at the feeders.

It could just as well be called yellow-shouldered or yellow-crowned, as bright yellow patches aren’t limited to rump. Because it’s ambidextrous in a way, a seedeater and insect eater, it’s among a few warbler species that don’t have to head to the tropics ahead of the winter freeze.

Tuesday morning’s sunrise brought a real flurry of birds including the first pine siskins in with the usual goldfinches, similar in size but very streaked.

They did not like sharing our small feeder with the regulars.

Siskins are among the northern “winter finches” that head this way some winters and stay north on others. The annual winter finch forecast put out by a fellow in Ontario says that a lot of species will be heading this way on what’s termed an “irruptive” flight year for the northerners owing to poor cone and birch seed crops.

The report says: “Stock your bird feeders because many birds will have a difficult time finding natural foods this winter.”

It’s been a while since we’ve had an irruptive year. While redpolls and siskins and perhaps some evening grosbeaks will bring smiles to people with backyard birdfeeders, it’s a lack of food that drives these northerners out of their familiar homeland territories.

Refugees of a sort, making their way as best they can in unfamiliar lands.

In terms of stocking our feeders, the report says that purple finches, pine grosbeaks and evening grosbeaks prefer black oil sunflower seeds. We offer only hulled sunflower seeds here in our minimal birdfeeding setup.

I will add black oil to the mix and note results with interest.

Also of interest, relating to birdfeeding, I note goldfinches feeding in the New England asters that we leave tall and rangy in our flower gardens. I took photos of bumble bees feeding on the last blooms on October 10. And now they feed the birds.

We also leave the garden soils mulched with leaves. It’s good for soil and all its organisms to be protected, and leaf litter is where sparrows feed, kick-hopping litter aside to find seed or insect.

One final bird note.

On Sunday, driving to the Harris Center’s annual meeting, I saw a large bird overhead, wings steady, riding air currents in a southerly direction. An eagle silhouette dark  against a bright sky. A pin-head compared to broad wings and body.

A golden eagle.

My spirit still lifts thinking about it.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.