winter bird feeding – to feed or not to feed?

It’s always been more or less conventional wisdom that feeding wild birds in winter ups their survival rate because their normal sources of food – seeds and insects – are greatly diminished. But is this wisdom correct? Some challenge this thinking, saying that feeding the birds makes them overly dependent on human handouts and weakens their ability to find food on their own. So what’s a bird-lover to do?

These questions aren’t easily answered, but a three-year study of black-capped chickadees by the University of Wisconsin found that during harsh winters, survival rates were higher when chickadees have both feeder and natural food options; where winters were more moderate, there were no significant differences in survival rates.

Since the late 1800s, many species including tufted titmice, northern cardinals, and white-breasted nuthatches have been expanding their range northward (following the settlers), some making it as far as southern Canada. Evidence bears out that bird feeding played a role in that expansion. Clearly, in these colder climates, supplemental feeding can be important, if not critical, to bird survival.

Nuthatches visit both suet and seed feeders

Tufted titmice are also regular visitors to our feeders

While it would seem “free” food would be irresistible to birds, some of our Virginia resident species, such as mockingbirds and phoebes, tend to shy away from seed feeders, choosing natural food sources instead.

This mockingbird is warning intruders to stay out of his winter food territory. He is protecting several berry bushes nearby.

These species, however, don’t shun feeders altogether. Phoebes have been known to visit mealworm feeders and mockingbirds occasionally come to suet feeders; however, I’ve never had either species come to my feeders. How about you? What atypical visitors have you seen at your feeders?

It’s true that feeders can put birds at risk by increasing their exposure to predators like cats and hawks. But it’s also true that birds that visit feeders eat more in less time than they would in the wild, giving them more time to watch for predators. In addition, birds that frequent feeders where they know cats are nearby keep a watchful eye for the felines and send out the danger signal to other birds when any predator is spotted. You can minimize the risk by keeping cats indoors or placing feeders where they are inaccessible to cats.

Feeders can also cause bird collisions with windows because they lure birds closer to houses and other buildings. One way to minimize collisions is to add tape or decals to your windows so birds won’t fly into them. Distance also plays a role, so place feeders far enough from windows so there is less chance that startled or frightened birds will fly into them.

If you choose to feed the birds this winter, remember that they will be relying on you when the weather turns harsh. The consequences can be disastrous if you suddenly stop, so once you start filling the feeders, continue through until winter’s end. If you are away over the holidays, ask a friend or neighbor to fill your feeders while you’re gone.

What am I going to do? Although I don’t start supplemental feeding until the first snow or hard frost (usually around mid-November), I’m going to feed the birds, as I always do. During periods of heavy snow, ice, or extreme cold, birds have a difficult time finding food and bird feeders can mean the difference between life and death. For me, it’s a no-brainer.

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the phoebes are getting ready for Sandy too!

During the last few days, the temps have been very mild here. I’ve been watching the Eastern phoebes feeding, and I can tell you, they are packing on the pounds! They seem to be concentrating on insects – I guess because once the weather turns cold, insects will be few and far between.

It’s interesting to watch the phoebes patiently sit on a branch like the one below and then suddenly fly out and grab a high-protein morsel mid-air.

I know that birds and other animals can sense changes in the weather, so maybe the phoebes are eating heavily in anticipation of the bad weather headed our way on Monday from Hurricane Sandy. Just like humans rushing out to the store to stock up on food, the phoebes are getting ready for the storm too!

safe haven

A few weeks ago, a pair of Eastern phoebes decided to build a nest in the rafters of our porch. After a brief courtship, they began bringing tiny balls of mud from the creek bank and depositing them on a narrow ledge on the porch. After it dried, the mud would help to secure the nest to the ledge. Once they were satisfied with the mud base, the phoebes built the nest out of lichens, moss, and soft plant parts. The nest was just ten feet from the front door.

I was surprised that the phoebes chose such a busy location when they could have built the nest in a less-trafficked area. For two weeks, despite the human activity and the dogs running in and out the door, the female remained entrenched in the nest, seemingly oblivious to the noise and traffic, while she waited for her eggs to hatch. This struck me as amazing when only a couple of weeks ago I wouldn’t have even known the phoebes were around if I hadn’t heard their back and forth courtship calls.

Phoebes are not the only birds that choose to build their nests close to human activity. Sparrows, swallows, bluebirds, and wrens, to name a few, are also known to build their nests in the eaves of homes and barns where there is a lot of activity. Sensing that their helpless offspring will be safer if located close to human activity, these birds are able to temporarily overcome their innate fear of people and use their hosts as a sort of insurance policy against predation of the nest.

The list of predators of bird nests is a long one: hawks, owls, crows, blue jays, weasels, fox, squirrels, snakes, and cats. In the wild, the odds are stacked against the phoebes. So, weighing the scales, it would seem the lesser of the two evils to endure the closeness of humans. In any event, it ended well for the little ones. The five youngsters, shown below, all fledged safely.

Three days before leaving the nest

The day before the big day (the nest is looking very crowded!)

The fledglings will remain under their parent’s care until they are old enough to fend for themselves. The youngster below is patiently waiting for mom or dad to bring him some food, but in a matter of days, he will be entirely on his own.

When I bought my farm, I did not know what a bargain I had in the bluebirds, daffodils and thrushes; as little did I know what sublime mornings and sunsets I was buying. Ralph Waldo Emerson

the phoebes are back!

First visit of the season by an Eastern phoebe. Phoebes are grayish-brown with a white breast and throat. They look like several other bird species; however, there are two big clues that you’re looking at a phoebe: their constant tail pumping and their call, a wheezy “phoebe, phoebe.” Their call sounds a lot like a child squeezing a rubber “squeeky” toy. This phoebe is holding a dragonfly in his beak.

A pair nested in our porch rafters last spring and kept us company all summer, long after their young had fledged. They called to each other throughout the day and would occasionally follow us around the farm, flying from tree to tree, sallying forth at times to snatch an insect from the air. Mated pairs tend to nest in the same place in successive years, so this pair is probably the same pair that nested here last year. We welcome these friendly birds and their voracious appetite for insects!

There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter. — Rachel Carson