Winter has also been hard on avian friends

Posted 24 February 2015 at 12:00 am

Photos courtesy of Joe and Joyce Gehl – A cardinal visits the feeder outside Joe and Joyce Gehl’s home in Carlton.


Survival is a tenuous proposition for those who do not hibernate or head south for a winter such as this. Among “these” are the feathered residents of Orleans County. The winter of ’14-’15 is taking its toll on them.

But it is also giving us an opportunity to develop interaction with them that would be more difficult otherwise. Their independence is being compromised by the harsh reality of unusually forbidding weather.

We have had many more avian visitors in many of our 43 years feeding at this location. Our numbers this year are decidedly down. From highs of three dozen goldfinches and as many male cardinals, we are down to, perhaps, a dozen goldfinches and sixteen male cardinals at one time. Numbers of chickadees are down to perhaps four.

A single song sparrow appeared in late January, and white-throated sparrows stand at no more than four (from as many as two dozen). We have single pairs of tufted titmice and white-breasted nuthatches, with the usual three to four pairs of downy woodpeckers. A solitary female hairy has been around all winter, along with just two red-bellied woodpeckers. Doves, loads of juncos, a few house finches and about a dozen tree sparrows (contrasted to approximately three dozen normally) are regulars.

Photos from Baker Road in Carlton confirm three bluebirds feeding on hulled black oil sunflower seeds through our single digit days. The fruits and seeds they normally depend on to survive our winters are in short supply.

Around us, there are virtually no sumac seed heads left. Sumac is often a food of last resort, sustaining a long list of birds in colder Aprils and Mays. Relieving the stress bluebirds are facing will depend on a mild spring. Adults could get by feeding on sumac if it were available, but their young are unable to do so.

Another Carlton resident reported a half-dozen evening grosbeaks earlier this month. If confirmed, this would be an extraordinary development (perhaps related to the harshness of this winter), as many New York birders haven’t reported them in at least twenty years.

We have had 5-6 blue jays all winter. While many people consider them bullies known for raiding nests, they are nature’s early warning system. Pinpointing the locations of owls and sounding the Cooper’s hawk and sharp-shinned hawk alarms make them useful to other songbirds, though they certainly are not the only ones that will “hound” such raptors unmercifully. They also help scatter seed from feeders allowing ground feeders easier access to it. If you want to attract them and cardinals field corn on the cob might do the trick.

Many of us have been disappointed this winter about the absence of redpolls. In weather such as we have had, their unmistakable tinkling vocalization expresses their excitement, if not appreciation, for a handout. They seem especially fond of Nyjer thistle and other expensive smaller seeds.

Enjoy them all, and think spring for them and us.

Gary Kent
Orleans Bluebird Society