Bird Feeding with George Petrides
Tips on attracting and feeding backyard birds.
Sharing ideas and topics related to feeding and attracting wild birds in your backyard.
The bird that carries the sky on its back…reminding us of a heaven which we had forgotten. –Henry Thoreau, 1852.
The Eastern Bluebird crisis led to a closer look at the well-being of its two western cousins. Secure in its high-altitude home, the turquoise Mountain Bluebird seems to be faring well. But the Western Bluebird, closer in habitats to the eastern, has similar woes and needs the same level of help.
The “foot soldiers” of this crusade are the “bluebirders”, who place nest boxes and monitor them for results. They are advocates who gladly take the bluebirds’ side against predators or competitors.
A raccoon or rat snake climbing a pole to snatch eggs from a box must contend with guards and traps, perfected over years of experimentation. “Bluebirders” may remove House Sparrow nests and even trap the Sparrows – a practice some find discomforting.
To ensure the bluebird’s survival, its human allies unapologetically play favorites. Clearly, aesthetics is an important factor behind this passion to care for bluebirds. However, the aggressive human intervention that saved the Eastern Bluebird may prove the only hope for other species now slipping toward extinction.
The bird that carries the sky on its back…reminding us of a heaven which we had forgotten.
Luckily for them, the three North American bluebird species live up to Henry Thoreau’s tribute way back in 1852. Humans have been smitten by their beauty since colonial times. So, when one of them, the Eastern Bluebird, fell on hard times, people quickly noticed and tried to help.
The 18th Century was a good time for the Eastern Bluebird which flourished well south of the St. Lawrence to the Gulf, and west to the Rockies. But with the introduction of that pugnacious Old World duo, the Starling and House Sparrow, the more timid bluebird was out-competed for natural nesting cavities by these aggressive intruders. The Eastern Bluebird’s decline was in motion.
The bluebird nesting box (which mimics a tree cavity) has been long recognized as a remedy. In 1934, it is said that Thomas E. Musselman made ornithological history by establishing the first bluebird trail of 1,000 man-made nesting boxes in Adams County, Illinois.
Nonetheless, the bluebird’s plight grew worse as rural habitat was lost and orchards were sprayed. By the 1970s, the Eastern Bluebird population had fallen by an estimated 90%.
Now the good news! Since the founding of the North American Bluebird Society in 1978, this downward trend has been reversed by the systematic placement of tens of thousands of nest boxes by sympathetic and concerned human “landlords”. Today, Eastern Bluebirds nest where they have been absent for decades.
Watch this space for Part II of this amazing story of Eastern Bluebird survival through human intervention!
During winter, chickadees and titmice may flock together and are often seen flitting back and forth from cover to your feeders at the same time. Titmice, which are larger than chickadees, dominate certain feeding niches chickadees might otherwise occupy. But the advantages of being part of a flock may compensate the chickadees for loss of feeding area.
Its fun to observe the different feeding behavior of the two species. While both species will often take a seed and retire to a more secluded area to feed, chickadees seem more comfortable cracking open the seed at the feeder, while titmice almost always grab a seed and quickly leave. Do your chickadees and titmice feed the same way?
Flocking advantages include having more than one pair of eyes to locate dwindling winter food supplies. The death rate due to predation may also decline when birds flock together. Because most trees have lost their leaves, the woods are more open in winter, making these birds more vulnerable to predation. Flocking birds also share responsibility for predator alerts. Once an alarm call is given, the flock will often engage in a behavior known as “mobbing”. Instead of fleeing, the birds will gather together and harass the predator. Titmice seem to be particularly bold in their attacks and will dive at the predator or pull at its feathers or fur.
Many birds, such as chickadees, molt at the end of summer. They may enter the winter with as much as 50% more plumage than at any other time of the year. They also have the ability to fluff their feathers up to increase the thickness of their insulation. However, long winter nights pose an additional problem for chickadees: fewer hours of daylight mean less time for foraging. To compensate, chickadees begin and end their foraging times at lower-light levels and intensify their use of reliably stocked feeders, so that their reduced foraging time is well spent.
In fact, various studies have found that many chickadees that had access to feeders survived the winter. The difference in survival rates was most dramatic during months when temperatures dipped below zero.
This is a common concern, often based on stories that have circulated for so long, they are accepted as fact. The idea that birds’ feet could freeze to metal perches is probably based on the fact that human skin or eyeballs (ouch!) will stick to sub-freezing metal.
However, birds’ feet – unlike human skin – do not contain seat glands. Their feet have no outside moisture and are perfectly dry. Take a look around this winter – you’ll notice birds safely perching on wire fences, etc. even during the coldest temperatures. So don’t worry about your metal feeder perches.