Far and away the question that I get most from readers is, “Where are my feeder birds?” Or, put another way, “Why aren’t birds coming to my feeders?”
It’s a difficult question to answer without seeing the setup since there are a number of variables including location, placement of feeder, type of food, presence or absence of predators along with factors that we cannot control such as climate, weather and amount of snow cover.
But here’s an explanation of my setup.
I put my feeders out following the passage of the first deep cold front, which was in early November this year. I’m located in Ischua and even though I have a lot of birds during the summer, most of them clear out as soon as the weather turns cold, so I know that I’ll have fewer varieties of birds at my feeders than people who live in the relative shelter of the Allegheny River valley.
Aside from my location, placement of my feeders is really important because birds need to feel safe coming to the feeder, which means an escape route into nearby bushes or trees in case a predator comes through. A predator could be a hawk, such as a sharp-shinned hawk or Cooper’s hawk, or it could be a cat or a person.
In addition to predators, it’s important to place feeders where squirrels can’t get at them because a squirrel sitting on a feeder will certainly deter birds, even though we don’t necessarily think of squirrels as predators of adult birds. At my house, red squirrels are the problem so I use shepherd’s hooks to hang the feeders rather than hanging them from tree branches. The cleverest squirrels can still shimmy up the poles so I try to put them as far away from trees as I can because squirrels also have to be concerned about predators, including foxes, coyotes and red-tailed hawks, so they want to limit the amount of open ground they have to cross to get to the feeders.
It’s a delicate balance between close enough to trees for birds but not close enough for squirrels.
Getting the right food can be tricky since bird food is expensive, even if you just use millet, which I try to avoid in favor of the more expensive foods that pack a bigger nutritional punch including black oil sunflower, suet and peanuts. Food is particularly important if you have neighbors who are also feeding birds, because birds know what they need and they’ll go to the feeders that give them the best nutritional package.
So, if I’m using nutritious food and am careful with the placement of the feeders, why am I still not getting any birds? It really depends on what birds you’re looking for.
I loosely classify winter feeder birds into nesters and migrants. Nesters are the birds that probably nested on or near my property during the summer and may still be hanging around including blue jays, black-capped chickadees, house sparrows, house finches, American goldfinches and Northern cardinals, among others. The migrants are the birds that leave Canada to look for food when the natural food supplies get low in Canada. Depending on the year, cold-weather migrants in my area have included American tree sparrow, pine siskin, common redpoll, evening grosbeak and an occasional crossbill.
There is overlap such as the dark-eyed junco, which nests in mature forest in our area but may also migrate from Canada, so it’s hard to know for sure whether the one at your feeder is coming from the hill behind your house or the boreal forests in Canada. Even in these days of heightened border security, birds don’t have to carry passports yet.
So far this year I have not seen any migrants and very few nesters at my feeders, even though I’m using peanuts, suet and black oil sunflower. The nesters I have had include blue jays, chickadees, downy woodpecker, house finch, European starling and American goldfinch — but even they don’t seem particularly interested and hours go by between visits, which I put down to weather and an abundance of natural foods.
By all accounts birds have been on the planet longer than we have and they’ve learned to survive by eating what nature provides, so it’s wired into their DNA to eat tree seeds, weed seeds, crabapples, insects and sumac, even if I have the most expensive food available for them at my feeders. And with no snow cover, natural food sources are readily available. In fact, I’m still seeing dandelions, which are a favorite of sparrows and with moderating temperatures, many insects are still active, which is another important food source for birds.
As much as I’m liking this lull before winter arrives in earnest, I’m also hoping for a good year for feeder birds, but the outlook for migrants isn’t very promising, according to Ron Pittaway at Ontario Field Ornithologists in Toronto. Each year Pittaway puts together a winter finch forecast, in which he evaluates the likelihood of winter finches leaving the boreal forests of Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland. His 2019-20 forecast states that there are abundant spruce cone crops across the provinces and states that most conifers, black ash, alders, birches and other seed tree crops are “good to excellent” across the Northeast — meaning that the best chances for seeing winter finches are in Algonquin Park in Ontario or the Adirondack Park in New York state.
However, he notes that there may be what he calls an “echo” flight of evening grosbeaks this winter, which he explains as a flight that follows a “considerable” flight from the year before and notes that evening grosbeaks moved south in large numbers in 2018-19. Indeed, January 2019 was the first time I’ve seen evening grosbeaks at my feeders in the more than 20 years that I’ve lived here and they only stayed for a few minutes but some readers had them over several days.
Anecdotally, it seemed they preferred feeders in areas that are more forested than the wide-open spaces where I live, which isn’t surprising since they nest in forested areas. According to Pittaway, they prefer black oil sunflower if they come to feeders.
Still, what makes birding so enjoyable is that it’s the art of the possible rather than the science of the certain so once deer season is over I’ll be out there looking for winter finches, even if they’re not looking for me or my feeders.
In the meantime, I’ll be watching the birds at my feeders even if they’re few and far between.
Some of the birds mentioned here can been seen at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/meadowsteward/