During the long dead of winter it can be challenging for bird watchers to find motivation, not to mention birds. The few hardy resident species that stay here can become--dare I say it?--kinda boring for some of us. Thus the idea of moving farther outside our normal circles begins to take on a certain appeal.
A handful of times every winter I find myself driving miles of empty county roads. In part, it's a simple relief from nagging cabin fever but it's also to explore the broader region in search of birds that may not be found in the metro area.
With persistent winter observation I've come to realize something. Mainly that, apart from the occasional raptor or other open country birds such as a snow buntings, there exists vast swaths of near nothingness during winter. Even habitats such as mature woodlands are essentially empty of birds save the few chickadees and woodpeckers.
As incongruent as it may seem, easily the highest concentrations of winter bird life can be found in residential areas. It sounds odd but a thoughtful examination reveals a simple truth: nesting is the furthest thing from most birds' minds this time of year, it's all about survival where only two things really matter, cover and food. And where better to find both than in town?
Cover means trees, brush, or other habitats where birds and animals find protection from predators and harsh weather conditions. A city or town is filled with cover as most yards are usually landscaped with a variety of coniferous and deciduous plants.
Woody species account for the food aspect of this discussion as well. Many birds take advantage of seeds produced by trees such as green ash, spruce, pine, or birch. Fruiting trees can be another major source of sustenance for birds. Is there anyone out there who has never seen an American robin feeding on crabapples? I didn't think so.
Finally, there are the few folks in town who actually set up and maintain bird feeders. This, of course, will attract all manner of wintering birds to one's yard if done correctly.
These truisms explain why towns are really the places to look for most wintering birds. It's become a personal theorem: Keith's rule of winter birding.
The results of a nationwide study some years ago revealed that North Dakota had the least number of bird watchers per capita than any other state besides Hawaii. An even smaller number of residents feed birds (the CEO of a prominent international bird seed company once told me a huge portion of their sales are in New England). As a result, those properties that do have bird feeding stations become oases essentially.
This is why I happen to know where the bird feeders are in towns all over this area. I can drive right to the homes in Embden, Buffalo, Hunter, or Casselton for instance and immediately find birds visiting well managed feeders from the warmth and comfort of my car.
This simple idea has produced many good birds over the years. A white-crowned sparrow in Embden, a rusty blackbird in Arthur, or the very rare gray-crowned rosy finch in Rogers to name a few.
The other aspect that can make small town feeder cruising interesting is meeting the people. Most are happy to talk to a fellow birder and welcome visits. There is a rural Leonard resident who calls me when he sees something different; that connection led to a red-headed woodpecker last year, a rare wintering bird.
I would advise caution however. Imagine the thoughts rumbling around the heads of rural townsfolk when an unknown person in an strange vehicle is noticed driving slowly around their streets, stopping frequently to look through binoculars. You get the idea. I was once angrily chewed out by a woman who feared for her child's safety, for instance. And I'm fairly certain my license plate got scribbled on a notepad in Page last week after seeing the furtive peaks around the curtain.
All I can say is that small town feeder watching is a rewarding and productive way to spend a few hours if you are looking for wintering birds. Just be ready to explain yourself. I really I should get that car magnet I've been thinking about, the one that says, "I'm not a tax assessor, I'm a birder."