Where are all the birds?
Every year around this time, this question pops up in bird discussion groups, news articles, etc. The question is typically asked in late autumn or early winter, by people who put out backyard feeders and expect the birds to come flocking in. Sometimes the birds do come to the feeders, and sometimes not. Why?
While birds and other wild creatures generally exhibit regular seasonal behaviors and movements, there are slight variations which are easy to understand ― and easy to predict ― simply by looking at things from the birds’ perspective. Often, people are so human-centric that they interpret “there are no birds at my feeders!” to mean “there are no birds!”
It’s worth taking a few minutes to consider the “big picture” and where our own little backyards fit in to the overall climate + habitat + food source equation.
Several factors combine to influence the presence of birds at backyard feeders.
Availability of wild food ― Wild birds prefer wild food. As long as natural food supplies are plentiful, the birds will forage on wild sources. Take a look at the trees, shrubs, and grasses in your neighborhood. The birches in my area are loaded with seeds this year, providing plenty of food for goldfinches; I won’t expect them at my thistle feeder until later in the winter. Up north, it was a good year for seed-bearing trees, too; read more here about how the seed crop is affecting the southward movement of finches from boreal areas:
The irruption of Snowy Owls across the northern United States has been widely reported. Though in some years this southward movement is a result of scarce food supplies to the north, the opposite is true this winter. Thanks to a high population of lemmings in their breeding areas, Snowy Owls had an extremely successful breeding season; they produced so many healthy young that the entire population has had to disperse over a large area in order to sustain itself over the leaner winter months. Most of the Snowy Owls being seen in New England this winter are juveniles.
Lack of snow cover ― The only significant snowfall we’ve had so far in southern New England this season was the big storm on Hallowe’en weekend. That snow was gone within a week. The ground has been bare since early November. So, ground-feeding birds, including the sparrows, juncos, and cardinals, are having a fairly easy time foraging seeds on grasses and other wild plants. Wild birds prefer wild food. When they can’t get enough wild food, they’ll come to the feeders.
In northern areas, too, there is less snow cover this winter. Northern birds have not moved south in large numbers yet because their food sources up north are plentiful and accessible. For example, I haven't seen a single White-crowned Sparrow this winter, even in the places where I have found them reliably in my town each winter, and I note that as of today only a half dozen or so have been reported to the CT Birds online list over the past months. Those birds, and others like them, are not here because they have not needed to move south.
Warm temperatures ― It was 61˚F here yesterday, an unbelievably warm temperature for early January in New England. Warm temperatures mean that many insects are still active, providing ready food sources for woodpeckers, chickadees, and other insect-eaters. Wild birds prefer wild food. When these insect-eaters can’t find enough insects, they’ll show up at your suet feeders. Just look outside on any of these warm days ― you will see flying insects. All across New England, warblers are being seen and reported every day; they are lingering because they are finding enough insects to eat.
Problems with feeders – If your feeders are old, broken, dirty, or moldy, don’t expect birds. If you are offering seed that is old, stale, rancid, or moldy, don’t expect birds. If there are cats or dogs in your yard, don’t expect birds. If there is no “cover” near your feeders – shrubs and trees where birds can hide from predators – don’t expect birds.
Get big picture on how and why birds move around. Keep your feeders clean and filled. Keep your cats indoors where they belong, and encourage your neighbors to do the same. Be patient. The birds will come when they have need. They are probably better off on their own, anyway.