I have been a lifelong fan of winter bird feeding. Even when I travel I carry a few small sunflower seed dispensers and a small bag of cracked corn just so I can enjoy the company of local birds and animals when there’s not much else going on.
It’s easy to keep track of the various species and population numbers when “feeding the birds” at home. The fluctuations in both categories are most noticeable when one is a daily participant. Overall I would rate this winter as below average when it comes to varieties and numbers, especially among the birds. I have as many as 15 deer coming in every night for their share of grain, seeds and apples and there are stable numbers of red, gray and flying squirrels scurrying around night and day, but when it comes to birds I’d say their numbers have dwindled incrementally since last year.
For starters, I’ve seen relatively few wild turkeys since the snow and cold ramped up in recent weeks. A normal flock for me is about 20 birds, but my notes show that I haven’t seen the first turkey since before New Year’s Day. I’m sure they are out there somewhere because it has not, until recently, been a particularly hard winter, but it is odd that we are nearly done with February and they have not been around. In past years I photographed flocks with strutting toms and sitting hens almost daily – but none so far this winter.
Also glaringly absent are the hundreds of blue jays that normally come in squawking loudly at dawn because the night shift has eaten all the food. My first chore of the day is giving the blue jays their breakfast, and normally I’d have 50 or more of them sitting in the tall maples overhead waiting for their share. This winter I have seen no more than four blue jays at a time and the brush at the edge of the woods is empty and silent.
I rather enjoy the sights and sounds of a flock of blue jays outside my windows, and it’s definitely much quieter around here these days; in fact so quiet that I wonder if something has driven them away or, worse, killed them off.
I’ve also noticed a huge drop in the number of mourning doves that are coming in to feed. They usually show up late in the afternoon for a last-minute session of picking and gritting, but most days this winter I’m lucky to see two or three doves.
I understand that others are also feeding the birds and that “my” flocks may have found better offerings elsewhere, but these are all highly mobile critters that can cover many miles in a day’s foraging. I get that they may feel the need to seek other options but to quit coming at all seems a bit much.
I do have the usual bands of chickadees, goldfinches, titmice and woodpeckers so there is plenty of activity at the feeders, but even their numbers seem reduced compared to years past. They all come in for a snack at various times throughout the day but not as frequently as they had been. One of the most telling signs is that my front-porch feeder, which I normally have to refill twice a week, was still nearly full the other day two weeks after I last replenished it! Considering that there are three species of squirrels in the mix one would think that I’d have a hard time keeping up with the demand but for some reason my seed budget this year is way ahead of seasons past.
Perhaps most disconcerting is the surprising reduction in cardinals. In years gone by I’d have as many as 10 cardinal pairs flitting back and forth in the yard, but this year I have seen only one male and one female. Nothing looks more striking against a fresh snowfall than a fluffed-up male cardinal, but this year the brush and bushes around the house seem empty and abandoned.
If I had to guess at what the problem may be I’d have to blame the loss of low-growing, early-successional cover, which provides breeding and roosting habitat for nearly all of these species. Each year I’ve also noticed that, once the snow hits the ground, I can see farther and farther into the woods, to the point that I can now see everything all the way to the top of the ridge, a distance of about 300 yards. This area was once choked with saplings, brush, blueberry bushes, grass and briars but now it is open and barren, dominated by the larger trees that continue to grow and shade out the important underbrush that most of our birds and animals need to survive.
Perhaps most telling is that on my winter walks I tend to see the most wildlife activity in areas that are dominated by low-growing herbaceous plants or areas where there is a good mix of all plant species. Big, open, mature woodlots may look great from a forester’s point of view but when a “nature lover” walks through the first thing they notice is how quiet and empty those woods are.
Much is made of how “development” is changing our environment and causing many of our favorite wildlife species to disappear, but the truth is that plain, old neglect is the larger culprit. Wide-open, mature forest is the bane of wildlife everywhere – they can’t nest, roost or find food in the tall trees, and so they move on to areas where the habitat is more suitable.
Oddly enough, remnant populations of our favorite feeder critters are most often found in built-up (i.e., developed) areas because that is where most of the shrubbery, saplings and low growth is found, as well as copious supplies of seeds, suet and other food source that humans provide. Some individuals of each species will survive due to artificial feeding and back-yard habitat improvement but the overall population can only decline as Maine’s 17 million acres of forestland continue to grow taller, broader and older.
If only there we could find a way to profit from more chickadees!