Bird Watcher's General Store

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Hungry Fall Birds

Dear Bird Folks,

What’s going on with the birds? Why are they eating so much? Ever since the end of August I can hardly keep my feeders filled. Are they putting on extra weight for their journey south?

– Jackson, Truro, MA


It’s the yin and yang, Jackson,

Back in June I explained that adult birds were feeding their babies insects, which helps them grow faster. And because of that, birds have less interest in birdseed. I reassured everyone that eventually the babies would grow up, discover our feeders and start eating our seed again. I concluded by saying (in my usual calm and gentle manner) that this cycle happens every year, so folks should stop freaking out about it. Well, June was the yin and now is the yang. (Or vice versa or something else altogether. I don’t really understand Chinese philosophy.) We are seeing more birds at our feeders right now because there are simply more birds. Every bird couple just finished cranking out a new brood (or two, or three), thus producing thousands of brand-new baby birds. The birds aren’t eating more because they are about to migrate; there are simply more birds right now. It’s the yin and yang of the feeder world. Believe me I know, because that’s what they taught me in Bird Feeder College.

To be sure, many birds, particularly migrating warblers and shorebirds do pack on extra calories before they leave in the fall. But the majority of our feeder birds don’t go anywhere. Cardinals, finches, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches are typically with us all year long. They like it here and why shouldn’t they? Oh sure, it sometimes gets a little cold, but cold doesn’t bother these birds…as long as they can find enough food. Besides, migrating to the tropics is long and dangerous. And let’s not forget what will be waiting for them when they get there. That’s right, snakes. Winter can be tough, but snakes are worse, way worse.

Just because birds don’t fly south doesn’t mean they are naïve about the coming deep freeze. Many birds are actually making preparations for winter as we speak. If you go for a walk in the woods right now you’re likely to see Blue Jays zipping through the oak trees. Fall is when they gather and hide acorns. A single Blue Jay may stash as many as three to five thousand acorns. The stashed acorns will supply the bird with an emergency winter food supply. And any acorns that aren’t eaten may eventually sprout and become new oak trees, which will produce future acorns. Thus the Blue Jays not only hide food for themselves, they also unknowingly (at least I think unknowingly) ensure food for coming generations. We could learn a lot from Blue Jays. In addition to acorns, Blue Jays will also cache other nuts, including peanuts. This summer I received a number of calls from people who weren’t seeing any jays in their yards. I suggested to the callers that they should put out some peanuts, especially peanuts still in their shells. I’ve heard back from several of these people and they all reported that their jays have indeed returned and are readily scooping up the peanuts. This surprised me. Not only did folks heed my suggestion, but the advice I gave them actually worked. That’s a first on both counts.

The idea of stashing food for the winter makes sense but it’s not perfect. Sometimes when the birds return to their cache, they discover some other creature has robbed them blind. Last fall I watched a jay hide a bit of food inside the end of a rotten tree branch. The jay jammed the food into the branch and then, for added security, covered it with a piece of bark before departing. Meanwhile, two trees away a White-breasted Nuthatch was secretly watching the whole thing. The instant the jay took off the nuthatch sprang into action. It flew directly to the rotten branch, flipped off the bark cover, snagged the jay’s food and flew away with it. Even though the jay took precautions, breaking into its stash was pretty easy…maybe not as easy as breaking into the White House, but still pretty easy.

Blue Jays aren’t the only birds that store seeds for winter. Many other backyard birds also do it. Tufted Titmice and the aforementioned White-breasted nuthatch often hide sunflower seeds in tree crevices. And in addition to seeds, the Black-capped Chickadee will hide fruit and tiny insects for the winter. One of the few backyard birds that don’t hide food is the cardinal. I often make fun of cardinals for not being the brightest birds and for acting kind of wimpy. But ultimately, cardinals must be pretty tough if they can survive a New England winter without a hidden food source. (Either that or they simply don’t hide food because they aren’t smart enough to remember where they’ve hidden it.)

Your end of the summer uptick in feeder activity, Jackson, is related to an increase in the backyard population and, to a lesser extent, birds caching seeds for the winter, not migration. I think you’ll find that your feeder action will level off as the fall continues. By December (for an assortment of reasons) your feeder will likely become quiet again. I know it’s crazy, but it’s true. June is quiet, the end of the summer is busy and December is quiet again. In my business this is known as the “yin, yang, yin effect.” At least that’s what they call it in Bird Feeder College.