February Count of Feeder Birds
(This column was first published in the March 1, 2004 issue of The Buffalo News.)
The response to my request for early February feeder counts has been both overwhelming and richly rewarding. I received over 270 responses, only a few of which I couldn't use in this summary.
At the outset I thank everyone for participating. In particular, I note my special appreciation for the many shut-ins who often shared detailed observations of their feeders. It is humbling to receive their thanks for organizing this task when instead I am in their debt. I wish there was some way of helping these good people to communicate with each other. If readers have suggestions about how to do this, I would be happy to receive them and to help with the venture.
What follows is based on 255 reports.
First some general information: A total of 17,628 birds of 58 species were recorded. Only two reports were of no birds at all. Ten were of ten or fewer individual birds and thirty of five or less species. (I suspect that these numbers are not representative as people probably hesitated to report feeders attracting few or no birds.) At the other extreme the maximum number of individual birds reported at one station was 868 and the highest species count was 26.
Far and away the most common species reported was the American goldfinch with 2415 observed, 14% of the total. Following it in declining numbers were house sparrow, dark-eyed junco, mourning dove, European starling, black-capped chickadee, house finch, Northern cardinal, blue jay and American tree sparrow.
One striking fact about that list stands out: three of the species on it are birds introduced to this area: starling, house sparrow and house finch. Their numbers make up a quarter of the overall total and they visited three-fourths of the feeders.
Although many of the same species occur, the order is quite different for the number of feeding stations at which species occurred. The dark-eyed junco visited 208 feeders, 82% of them. In order of occurrence, others found at over 100 feeders were in descending order: black-capped chickadee, Northern cardinal, downy woodpecker, mourning dove, blue jay, white-breasted nuthatch, American goldfinch, red-bellied woodpecker, European starling, house sparrow, house finch and hairy woodpecker.
Those numbers correlate quite closely with the 125 feeder counts in the Dunkirk area recorded by Allen Benton and Dick Miga.
The species that most surprised me is the red-bellied woodpecker. This beautiful woodpecker with its red helmet over white cheeks is a relative newcomer to this area. Now the numbers of this southern half-hardy are four times as great as its cousin, the formerly far more common flicker.
But the major story of this census relates to hawks. They were reported at 32% of the feeders. (This is likely another undercount as many observers only reported birds eating their seeds or suet.) Most of the hawks reported were accipiters: Cooper's or sharp-shinned hawks.
Clearly we have created a new niche for predators with our feeding stations. Many reports came in expressing concern: "A Cooper's Hawk is taking one or two birds a day from my feeders. What can I do?"
I have no satisfactory answer to this inquiry. Hawks are protected under international treaties and varmint permits are not issued to bird feeders. One not very satisfactory response is to stop feeding birds for a period. I promise you that your normal visitors will not starve: there is plenty of food out there.
After 674 appearances on Mondays, "Nature Watch" moves to the Sunday News science page next week. I hope that many readers will join me in this early Spring migration.-- Gerry Rising