Sunday, February 16, 2014

Winter Feeder Birds

Activity at the bird feeder typically increases after a snow and this year has been no exception.  Over three feet of snow has fallen at Blue Jay Barrens this season, making it difficult for birds to forage in their usual areas.  Each new snow seems to push a few more birds to the feeder.

The bird feeding area is located just west of the house.  I spread cracked corn on the ground beneath the overgrown apple tree to the right and feed sunflower seed from a pole mounted feeder.  This area is left unmowed and generally develops a thick cover before frost kills off the top growth.  By this time of year, feeder visitors have knocked down all but the stoutest of vegetation.

Cover produced by a half dead apple tree is enhanced by the addition of the annual Christmas tree.  This year’s addition has been heavily used as a roost area by various sparrow species.  Branches of the apple tree are a primary destination of birds flushed from their feeding area.

Despite below zero temperatures, open water is maintained by a seasonal spring feeding the pond in front of the house.  This is often the only open water within a quarter mile.

Bird activity at the feeder often reminds me of a crowd at a street fair.  The birds are in constant motion.  Some species seem to have preferred feeding times.  Mourning Doves are generally most abundant early in the day.

Cardinals are usually the last birds to retire from the feeder in the evening.  This habit of late feeding makes them targets of Screech Owls.  I have found several collections of owl pellets containing Cardinal bills, but I’ve never noticed any decline in the number of Cardinals.

A crowd forms awaiting sunflower seeds that are knocked from the feeder.

Feeder visitors are a mix of migrant and resident birds.  The Blue Jay and Cardinal will nest nearby and bring their fledglings to the feeder this summer.  Juncos, Tree Sparrows and Fox Sparrows will disappear in the spring.

The local Wild Turkey population has been represented by a lone pair of Toms.  These large birds are able to break through the crusted snow and access what’s left of a bumper crop of fruits and nuts.  The large turkey flocks tend to visit the feeder only when the natural food supply is lacking.

Maybe these two are the lazy members of the flock.  They prefer foraging in the lawn exposed where snow is melted by heat radiating from sun warmed house bricks.

The only thing that moves birds to the feeder faster than heavy snow is an ice storm.  A February 5 ice storm coated trees and sealed the snow cover with a frozen barrier impenetrable to most birds.  Most of the tree ice has since melted, but the iced snow pack still persists beneath six inches of more recent snow.

The ice also sealed away Indian Grass seeds, a source of food for flocks of wintering sparrows.

Many of these sparrows are now supplementing their diets with cracked corn.

Feeding these birds is like scattering scratch for the chickens.  They take to the trees when I come out, but drop down quickly when I begin to scatter the seed.

Dozens of Cardinals showed up at the feeder soon after the ice appeared.  Their bright colors in the sparkling trees would have been a cheery sight if I hadn’t known what a disaster that ice foretold for so many wild animals.

As bird numbers increased, the feeding activity took on a more frantic pace.

Foraging birds ranged far from the feeding locations.  These tracks, all made within 24 hours of the last snowfall, show that the birds have searched every square inch of the snow covered lawn.

Activity at the feeder is not limited to seed eaters.  Several hawk species use the feeder area as a hunting ground.  This Red-tailed Hawk is carrying off a squirrel that had been stuffing itself with sunflower seeds.  Warm temperatures forecast for next week promise to melt off the snow and ice, so this temporarily concentrated activity should spread back out over a more natural area.


  1. Hi Steve..Here in Maine we get all excited to have a pair of Cardinals come to the feeder's in winter, and there are a few pairs around that come to my feeders!!
    They are gorgeous in your ice decorated tree!!

    I guess your bird seed budget must be up there, I know mine is!!
    That's a lot of mouths to feed!!


  2. Hi Grace. My bird feed supply has been going fast the past few weeks. Things will slow down a bit after the thaw. I'm thinking about how pretty those Cardinals are going to look in a tree covered with apple blossoms.