Flight lines: Reports of low bird numbers hard to quantify
In a voice bordering on exasperation, friend and former coworker, Craig McEwen, blurted out his question over the phone last week, “So where are all the birds?” He described putting up a number of bird feeders last fall with the hope of attracting some feathered friends to his yard yet very little if any activity has taken place since. He’s not the only one to make such an observation.
I was out of town on a trip for three days last month before returning home one evening.
Bleary-eyed, I stepped to the back window the following morning expecting the usual hubbub of activity around the bird feeders. There was surprisingly very little.
Last weekend a New Rockford resident made a comment on ND Birds (the state listserve), “I have had feeders in my yard for years…I had to fill feeders several times a week. This year…I have only refilled feeders once. Where have all the birds gone?”
In the face of all of this I began to scratch my head and wonder if there wasn’t something to this notion of a birdless winter. I knew just where to turn for evidence one way or the other: Joe and Linda Gregg of Horace, the proprietors of one of the most robust residential bird feeding operations I’ve ever seen.
During our discussion, Linda noted no discernible lack of bird numbers at their feeders this winter. But to confuse the issue even further, she told me of their friends in Hunter and Hatton who both reported empty feeders.
With little in the way of hard science to back up my suppositions, let me offer my armchair two cents as a way of explaining the curious and somewhat conflicting reports from the area.
First, any way we slice it, we need to consider this section of the yearly calendar as the absolute low tide for birds. As recently as the middle of December there were several lingering migrants hanging around. Not so anymore. Weeks of steady dark, cold, snowy, and windy conditions have thinned the already low numbers to their nadir.
Second, winter is a tough time for wildlife in general and birds are not an exception. During particularly difficult winters the struggle is a daily one. Animals tend to cluster around suitable areas once one is located that provides food and cover, the keys to winter survival. This leaves a lot of blank spots in the environment. Instead of being evenly distributed across the landscape like a knife full of jam on a piece of bread, winter birds and animals get lumped in irregular clusters.
In addition, it’s simply a bad year for some of the more common winter feeder visitors. Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls, two species that can usually be found draped all over our bird feeders during most winters, are completely absent from the area this season, giving at least some credence to the impression of a birdless winter.
Moreover, I believe the extreme wind events our area has endured in recent weeks tend to shuffle the deck quite a bit. It’s been long understood that these types of weather phenomena will move birds around, often great distances. A few of the individuals I had visiting my place in early January are nowhere to be seen anymore. Might they have simply been displaced by a storm?
In summary, by combining the stories I’ve heard with some personal observations, this might be a down year for bird numbers in general. Still, I tend to believe the anecdotes have more to do with a combination of time of year, harsh challenging conditions of late, and the uneven distribution of winter birds in general. This population dynamics thing is a continuously moving target that is not easily observed and quantified. I guess the good news is that the first migrants of “spring” should begin arriving by the end of February. Some short weeks later, that tiny but welcome trickle will become a bountiful torrent and thoughts of the birdless winter will be greatly diminished if not completely erased.
Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications. firstname.lastname@example.org.