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Feeding Birds in Winter: To Stop or Not to Stop?

Do birds suffer when the feeders stay empty?

Heading out the door for a midwinter getaway, you congratulate yourself on your laudable stewardship of all the lives that depend on you--the dog is at the kennel, the goldfish is with a neighbor and a friend will come over to water your plants. But wait a minute! Your birdfeeders are already half empty, and you haven't even left the driveway. What will happen to those cute little chickadees when they fly in for black-oil sunflower seed but find nary a crumb?

Wild birds are resourceful, gleaning most of their food from the natural habitat; except in extreme or unusual circumstances, they manage to find enough to eat to survive. But birds that have become used to supplemental feeding may suffer when that food supply is suddenly missing, especially in winter. Experts offer a variety of tips and insights:

Keep feeders full when winter is toughest. Birdfeeders are most attractive to birds in winter, when natural food supplies are least available. Seed eaters such as finches, sparrows, titmice and chickadees may flock to feeders--in higher numbers than natural food sources alone in the immediate area could support. Seeds that are merely a welcome supplement under normal winter conditions may suddenly become vital in the space of one fierce ice storm or blizzard.

In general, it's more important to keep feeders going in the winter, especially during cold weather, say Donald and Lillian Stokes, residents of Massachusetts and authors of more than a score of nature guides.

"Chickadees have a fixed territory they stay in during the winter," Lillian says. "If they have come to depend on your food source, it's harder on them when it is removed during cold weather."

Feeders aren't birds' only source of food. "The real problems occur when an ice storm covers all the twigs and branches where they usually get insect larva and seeds. Then they really could use the supplemental feeder. Studies have shown that chickadees and their like fare better in winter if they have access to supplemental food at feeders."

Put up large-capacity feeders if necessary. The best suggestion is to find someone to replenish the feeders. "We usually have some large feeders that we use when we are on vacation," she says. "They hold a lot of seed and we have someone come once or twice a week to fill them and also check if there is a bad storm. If you have close neighbors that run reliable feeding stations and your birds could go next door if they needed to, then maybe they wouldn't be as affected if you stopped feeding."

Encourage neighborhood birdfeeding. Florida isn't a landscape that commonly comes to mind when one imagines a harsh winter habitat. But over the last few decades, ornithologists have recorded neotropical migrants overwintering there and in other southeastern states, rather than fleeing to Central or South America. In these cases, it's not so much seed that is in short supply, but something sweeter.

"We have our own personal buff-bellied hummingbird," says Jim Cox, a biologist at Tall Timbers Research Station, near Tallahassee. Cox thinks his buff-bellied visitor first zeroed in on his next-door neighbor's hummingbird feeder before crossing the property line to discover theirs. Now it flies back and forth between the two yards. "Get your neighbors involved," says Cox. "That way, if there's no food at your feeder, the birds won't have to go very far to find some."

Neglect them, and they will leave. Jim's wife Katie Nesmith, biologist for the Florida Natural Areas Inventory, brings up another point. "Many people around here have so much invested in their bird gardens that they don't want to risk losing the species they've managed to attract," she says. Many birders are proud of the avian novelties they've persuaded to frequent their feeders by providing an array of food choices, including--for instance--fruit.

"If someone's gotten a Baltimore oriole to come to their yard by setting out orange halves--and then all of a sudden they stop--the oriole will leave," says Nesmith. If feeders are not maintained, not only will birds lose whatever extra boost they may get from supplemental feeding, but birdwatchers may find that some of their feathered friends have moved on.

Taper off. If no willing feeder-refiller presents himself, and the time of departure is approaching, what can a compassionate bird host do?

"Bird populations fluctuate a lot and birds are used to adapting to very dynamic food supplies," says Megan Whitman, project assistant for Project Feeder Watch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. "So people really shouldn't worry so much. Birds can deal with change.

"That said," she continues, "I also have trouble leaving my feeders untended. Ideally, either taper off or get someone to come in and refill them." Tapering off the seed supply allows birds used to focusing on the feeder as a food source to adjust gradually to finding more food elsewhere.

 

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