A purported bird disappearance this fall has kept Maine bird experts busy with calls, emails, Facebook messages and questions from Mainers who are worried about the birds they are not seeing at their backyard feeders.
The experts have a message for all Mainers: the birds are alright. Abundant wild food, unusually warm weather and other factors happening this year have meant the birds simply do not need to frequent bird feeders yet.
“Basically our last two months have been answering the question,” Derek
Lovitch, a naturalist who is the co-owner of Freeport Wild Bird Supply, said. “In fact, it’s a good fall for the birds. It’s a terrible fall for bird feeding.”
In fact, a lot of things are different about this season, he and other experts said. Maine is on track to mark the warmest October in recorded history, and the warmer-than-usual temperatures have meant that birds need to eat less food this fall to keep their bodies warm. There’s been enough food north of Maine, too, meaning that fewer irruptive, or unpredictable migrant bird species have to come down here from Canada to get enough to eat.
The warm, largely frost-free conditions around the state this fall have equaled a veritable all-you-can-eat avian buffet of wild food such as insects, acorns, white pine cones, crabapples, goldenrod seeds and mountain ash berries. The lack of rain (until last week) has meant that the seeds and other food were dry and unspoiled longer than usual, ready to tempt the appetite of any finch or fowl that wandered by.
“Birds are so much smarter than we are,” Lovitch said. “They balance their own diet, and natural foods are always best for their diet. Feeding is a supplement. It’s a helpful supplement, and when it’s done well with high-quality food, it’s a beneficial supplement. It can increase survivorship. But a supplement is only a supplement. If anything will finally kill the stupid myth that birds are dependent on feeders, it should be a season like this.”
But instead of killing the myth, the unusual conditions have led to a flurry of hypotheses about the whereabouts of the birds, most based in emotion and fear rather than science. People think the recent hurricanes changed migration patterns and caused the birds to leave the state, or the summer and fall drought drove them out, or chemicals in the environment have caused a sudden, scary die-off, a la “Silent Spring.” They’ve even wondered if falling acorns have hit the birds and scared them away.
Doug Hitchcox, staff naturalist at Maine Audubon, said he’s had a hard time convincing the people who have reached out with their concerns about the “missing” birds that they’re fine and still eating wild food. The conversations he’s had have sometimes been marked by emotion and even anger. One older woman actually yelled at him this week after he told her the birds are still there.
“We’ve put this answer out there, and it’s the correct answer,” he said. “One of my favorite things about Maine Audubon is that we’re based on facts. We don’t let emotion drive our decisions. That’s exactly what we’ve done with this.”
He’s heard from people who have pointed out that the black-capped chickadees, the Maine state bird that is a bird feeder favorite, are nowhere to be seen. When he tells them why, they don’t necessarily trust him. That can be frustrating, he said.
“All the migrants are heading out and the chickadees, all the competition they had all summer is gone,” he said. “Our resident birds now have abundant food and less competition for it. That’s more reason for them to not be around. Then people say, but it’s dead quiet. We should hear them. Well, it’s late October, and birds aren’t singing now. They sing to defend territory or attract a mate.”
Hitchcox said he does a weekly birdwalk at the Audubon center in Falmouth. It has been dead quiet at the birdfeeders there, he said. That’s true. But when he and other participants walk around the 65-acre property, they’re still seeing the 50 or so species they usually do this time of year. There have not been any declines, he said, and encourages other concerned bird lovers to look up their local Audubon chapters around the state to go on a birdwalk with an expert.
“Let them show you that there is no problem,” he said.
Still, the success of wild birds in Maine this fall does not mean that everything is great for birds in general, both Hitchcox and Lovitch said. Problems as complex as climate change and as simple as cats killing billions of wild birds a year have taken a toll on the health of many avian species.
“We are seeing long-term declines,” Lovitch said. “We do have some real big issues we have to deal with.”
There are steps worried Mainers can take to do their part to contribute to the well being of birds, he said, including striving to keep cats indoors. But they also can make sure to maintain bird feeders right now for the eventual return of the birds.
“It will change when it gets colder. Birds will need to eat more. We will eventually get snow, and natural food will eventually get used up,” he said. “We recommend maintaining your feeders as if they were being regular frequented. Keep them clean. Keep food fresh. So that when they do arrive, they have high-quality food.”
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