Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Reply to "A Strange Thing Going On in Cheshire"

A couple of days ago we posted a query from a Cheshire resident who was wondering why there were so few birds in her town. Here's the gist of it:  

"Our birds have disappeared. Any bird smaller than a Large Blackbird have all left. At first I thought it was only occurring at my feeder … however a local Vet. called me last week and asked if I had noticed anything different about the birds at my feeders. He also has not seen a single bird for a few weeks."

You can read the email here. This morning, Twan Leenders, Connecticut Audubon's conservation biologist, replied to our correspondent. I thought it was worth quoting in full:

I understand your concern and although I cannot give you a definite answer, I suspect that the apparent lack of small birds at your feeders is seasonal and related to the weather patterns we have been experiencing. As you undoubtedly know, most song birds migrate away from our area in the fall, leaving a small contingent behind during the coldest months of the year. To some extent our wintering birds are usually supplemented by birds migrating in from our north when water freezes and snow covers the ground there. The snow and ice effectively make 'wild' food inaccessible to small birds. This is generally when feeders become busy because a steady supply of high quality food will be readily available there.

This winter has been very different than our past few and thusfar much of the land and water to our north is still open. As a result of the easy access to local food, the number of winter migrants moving into the state is greatly reduced this year. Combine this unusual winter weather with a bumper crop of tree seeds and nuts to our north and few birds have had reason to move south yet. I think that it is this combination of factors that has truly left us with a lower number of birds in the state so far this winter. Luckily this is not caused by any local detrimental environmental factor, but rather by the fact that things are fine elsewhere and local birds to our north have not had to embark on a dangerous and strenuous journey south because the conditions there have been just fine still. On the brighter side, if this mild winter holds we could be experiencing a fantastic breeding season in northern birds since they did not have to waste energy on trying to locate food, their populations will likely be larger locally since there is less winter mortality, and the breeding season may start early since all birds are in place already - leaving room for a possible second or third clutch next year.

I was in western New York over the holidays where conditions were also very balmy for their standards with no snow cover (they are already a stunning 70" of snowfall behind on last winter!). There were very few birds on the local feeders until one day a few inches of snow suddenly made the local, wild food supplies unavailable and birds immediately flocked to suet and seed feeders. I'm betting that in the next few days as our temperatures drop, activity at your feeder may pick up a bit. If we get a little snow to cover the ground, you will probably see even more activity. But still keep in mind that until the land to our north is white, we will have fewer birds around than in past winters.

Thank you for your concern over the local bird populations and keep your feeders stocked. There are birds out there and you will see them again if/when conditions are right.

I should add that there seems to have been quite a bit of lake effect snow in upstate New York this week, so maybe northern birds will start to move down toward the coast. -- Tom Andersen

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