I thought it was just me. Then I started getting messages from people wondering what had happened to their feeder birds. Feeders were active, and everything was normal through the first week of September. Then — bam — all activity stopped. Sunflower seeds were completely ignored. Goldfinches that had been gobbling Nyjer stopped. Even woodpeckers were scarcely nibbling the suet.
Everybody related the same story: in all their years of feeding birds, they’d never seen it like this. I was ready for their questions. I had been pondering the absence of birds at my own feeders, so I was already alert to the situation.
My first step was to watch for signs that all my usual feeder birds were still hanging around the neighborhood. They were. Chickadees and nuthatches are pretty noisy when foraging, and they were definitely scouring the nearby trees for food, chattering the whole time. Blue jays were squawking in bigger numbers than usual. Goldfinches never shut up, and they were present in the treetops. Woodpeckers were vocal. I don’t usually have tufted titmice in my yard, but even a couple of those passed through. My yard was normal, only my feeders weren’t.
So, I rapidly concocted a theory or two. First, it’s a tremendous year for seeds around my house. I have a metal roof, which was installed just a few years ago. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I realize that a metal roof under oak trees gives inhabitants the impression of perpetual hail. I even know when a squirrel is foraging among the treetop acorns, because there is a sudden clatter of bangs on the roof.
Second, it’s been warm and dry. The average temperature in Bangor for September was the highest ever recorded for the month, breaking a record set in 1961. Nothing happened to kill off the remaining insects. A lot of our feeder birds also eat insects. Chickadees and nuthatches are champion gleaners. Additionally, those birds that compete with feeder birds for insects, such as warblers and vireos, left. They migrated out right on time, leaving all that bug food still swarming about the tree leaves. When I step outside in the morning, I can hear my local birds gleefully chowing down on insects, while ignoring my sunflower seeds.
The truth is, feeders provide only supplemental food for birds. That gives me comfort, because I do worry sometimes that bird feeding may have negative consequences. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, more than 50 million Americans feed birds. A million tons of seed get offered up every year. That amount of supplementary food certainly must have an impact on wildlife, changing behaviors.
Some of that impact is clearly harmful. Feeders concentrate birds in open areas, making them easier targets for raptors and cats. They can crash into windows. They can spread disease.
But some of the impacts are clearly beneficial. Feeders can help birds get through hard times, especially during rough winters. Feeders have played a big role in increasing the range of some birds, such as cardinals and titmice. I know of no evidence that the influx of these birds has harmed the birds that were already here.
The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology studies such questions. They have been operating Project Feederwatch for 30 years, gathering data from homeowners about the birds people observe at their feeders in winter. Cornell reasoned that if bird-feeding was more harmful than beneficial, then we would see declines in those populations over three decades. They studied 98 species that routinely visit feeders, and found that these birds were doing at least as well as non-feeder birds, and often better.
Which brings us back to the present. Our backyard birds aren’t coming to our feeders because they simply don’t have to. They will always prefer natural food, and will always be a little nervous about becoming a hawk target at a feeder. So if they don’t need the supplement, they won’t visit. Since I can hear them chattering up there, I conclude that they’re still present and doing fine.
Nonetheless, the safer I can make my feeders, the better. Feeders should be placed near cover so that birds can escape, but far enough away from strong branches so that squirrels and cats can’t easily jump onto them. Feeders should be near or far from windows, to reduce collisions. And they should be cleaned regularly. When the weather declines, which it will sooner or later, the birds will return.