September 19, 2019
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Birds aren’t absent. They’re just ignoring your feeder

Bob Duchesne | BDN
Bob Duchesne | BDN
A downy woodpecker was among the birds that flew by. Even if the birds aren't at your feeder, that doesn't mean they're not around, finding their own natural food.

Chickadee-dee-dee-dee is a sound everyone recognizes. But not everyone recognizes cee-cee, nor ti-ti-ti-ti, nor seeet, nor even hank-hank-hank.

So this column raised some eyebrows a couple of weeks ago when I said I was still hearing all of my usual feeder birds around the yard and that they simply weren’t coming to my feeder, probably because of an abundance of natural foods in the treetops.

I received interesting feedback. Some readers were grateful to hear their birds were doing fine but just didn’t need the sunflower seeds right now. Others pointed out that the column was a perfect example of the decline in American journalism: opinion posing as fact. Perhaps. But in today’s America, an actual fact that doesn’t support one’s opinion is considered fake news, and the only acceptable facts are preceded by a hashtag. I decided that, on the whole, the criticism was warranted and I should do some actual science to back up my opinion. Or at least fake some actual science.

First, I perceived that many folks who thought their birds were completely gone, might simply be unfamiliar with the little noises they make. They might not spot birds in the upper part of the canopy, concealed by fall foliage.

So I laid out a 1-mile course from my house using a handheld GPS unit, which made it even more scientific. If my anecdotal observations were correct, I should hear foraging flocks of typical feeder birds scattered around my neighborhood. Last Sunday morning, I waited until the day had warmed up, when the birds would likely be foraging for insects in the treetops. At precisely 9 a.m., I struck off down the road. At first, it was discouraging. My front yard was completely silent, save for two blue jays that were calling behind my neighbor’s house.

At mile 0.3, a flock of seven American goldfinches were foraging and calling from the tops of a few red maples. One white-breasted nuthatch called. So did one downy woodpecker. I jotted them down and walked on.

At mile 0.4, there was a mixed flock consisting of four black-capped chickadees, three white-breasted nuthatches, and another downy woodpecker, all moving in one noisy group along the treetops. Bingo.

At mile 0.6, an even larger mixed flock was gleaning its way through the leafy treetops, including four black-capped chickadees, three red-breasted nuthatches, and four golden-crowned kinglets. Kinglets don’t visit feeders, but they do join foraging flocks when the chickadees and nuthatches are feeding on bugs, spiders and caterpillars.

I finished the full mile, chancing upon a few more chickadees and nuthatches, plus a boisterous group of three blue jays. I was somewhat surprised to hear two pine siskins fly over. Siskins regularly visit thistle feeders in winter, so here was yet another feeder-bird species in my neighborhood that was completely ignoring my feeders.

Still, there was one more scientific test I needed to perform. My published claim was about the birds in my yard, not the birds down the road. For my assertion to be scientifically supportable, I would need to take an inventory of my own quarter-acre. Fortunately, that wouldn’t be hard to do. Chickadees and nuthatches are easy to annoy. I have an old recording of mixed chattering birds. I stepped into the yard and turned it on.

Red-breasted nuthatches responded instantly. Two came into the branches above my head and commenced scolding. A downy woodpecker flew in right behind them. From the neighbor’s yard, a hairy woodpecker called, and then another. Four golden-crowned kinglets crossed the driveway and alighted in the treetops.

The chickadees were actually a little slow to arrive. Four of them were presently in the neighbor’s yard, ignoring his feeders. It took a minute or two for them to work their way over to my yard, which was about the same amount of time it took for two white-breasted nuthatches to join the party. The evidence was now all assembled in front of me. My feeder birds were still present. They just weren’t interested in what I had to offer.

Of course, one can’t draw too many conclusions from just one brief survey. If my hypothesis is correct that the usual birds are still present, and they are ignoring feeders because of the sheer abundance of natural food in the treetops, we would have to replicate the same study in your yard. I’ll be over right after lunch. If I’m late, start without me.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

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