Bird Watcher's General Store

Some Fall Birds to Look For

Dear Bird Folks,

Now that the cool weather has arrived and most of the summer birds (orioles and hummingbirds) have left us, what new birds can we expect at our feeders in the fall?

Ė Terry, Fairhaven, MA

Itís tricky, Terry,

Spring is a fairly predictable time of year at birdfeeders. Sure, we sometimes get the occasional strange visitor but for the most part, birds arrive as expected. Red-winged Blackbirds return in early March, followed by everybodyís favorite birds, the grackles. (When I say, ďeverybodyís favorite birdsĒ I mean everybody who sells birdseed.) Late April is when the hummingbirds arrive, which causes us to panic because we never remember where we put the feeders from the year before, even though we swore weíd remember. (Some company would make a lot of money if they invented a system that would keep track of hummer feeders from season to season.) Finally, Motherís Day brings the orioles and their lust for oranges and jelly. Fall, on the other hand, is not as predicable. Sometimes fall can be interesting and sometimes kind of dull. Then, every few years, fall turns out to be a spectacular time to have a bird feeder. This seems to be one of those falls. Sweet!

I donít know what itís like in Fairhaven right now, but here on Cape Cod we canít go outside without hearing the high-pitched ďyank, yank, yankĒ of the energetic Red-breasted Nuthatches. These tiny birds never stop talking, sounding like a parade of squeaking dog toys moving through the trees. When a flock arrives at a feeder they hit it from all directions. They approach from above, from below and often upside-down, like feathered Keystone Cops. Sure, Red-breasted Nuthatches can be found around here anytime of year, but we typically only see the occasional few, not dozens. Why so many? This appears to be one of the legendary irruptive years they wrote about in the Bible, or more accurately, in birding books. Every once in a while the northern seed crop fails and that causes many birds in Canada to head south to look for food. If the birds donít find enough natural food they settle for bird feeders and birdseed, and Iím totally okay with that.

This year nuthatches arenít alone in their search for greener pastures. Pine Siskins have also been swarming at feeders. Have you seen any? Red-breasted Nuthatches are noisy, distinctive and quite apparent, but Siskins can easily be over-looked. They are streaky-brown birds, looking very much like small, female House Finches, but with a touch of goldfinch-yellow on the wings. They have deeply notched tails and bills that are much thinner and pointier than what most finches have. They are also super feisty. Theyíll stand up to just about any bird that tries to muscle them off a feeder.

Birders from around the state are reporting seeing flocks of these spirited birds, yet I have had very few customers mention seeing them on their feeders. Why? Even though my customers are the smartest in the entire world, most probably think they are simply getting extra House Finches. But this fall they should look at every feeder bird carefully. Siskins are everywhere. Today I visited my mother, who lives in an assisted living community in Northborough, MA. While I was there I filled her birdfeeder with fresh sunflower seeds (which she still owes me money for, by the way). Two minutes after I filled the feeder, it was packed with siskins. I was thrilled and started telling all of my motherís friends about the unusual birds, but no one was interested. They just wanted me to be quiet because I was interrupting Lawrence Welk on TV. (How is he still on?) The fall invasion of finches and other birds from Canada is a normal, but unpredictable event. Usually itís tied to naturally occurring pinecone and other seed crop shortages. But this year there are two other factors that could have caused the invasion. One is this summerís drought, which has made natural food scarce in many locations. But the main reason why the birds are moving out of Canada has nothing to do with food. Itís the hockey strike. Without hockey to watch, there is little reason for birds to stay.

So far Iíve only mentioned two species of birds that we are likely to see at our feeders, but that list is expected to grow. Look closely at your male House Finches. You might find the often-misidentified male Purple Finch chowing on your sunflower seeds. Also, watch out for crossbills. As their name implies, the beaks of crossbills actually overlap at the tip, making them look like they are in serious need of orthodontic work. There is also strong evidence that we might be seeing flocks of redpolls this year. Again, redpolls look very much like finches, but they have small patches of red on their foreheads. Redpolls also have black feathers around their beaks, looking like the goatees worn by the beatniks in the Ď50s, or in this case, beak-niks. Keep a careful eye on your feeders this fall, Terry. Many of these unusual birds travel in nomadic flocks, which means they could be there one day and gone the next. If you donít pay attention, you could miss out. And speaking of missing out, my mother never paid me for that birdseed. She said sheíd pay up right after Lawrence Welk was over, but I wasnít going to sit through an hour of a dead guy playing the accordion just for a lousy $1.26 worth of seed. Iíll send her a bill.

Artwork by Catherine Clark

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