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Where have all the birds gone?

American Robin
Mark Faherty
American Robin

Where are my birds? When you work in the bird industry, it’s often the most common question you get, right up there with “how do I stop the woodpeckers pecking my house?” It’s so common that organizations like Mass Audubon and Cornell Lab of Ornithology have web pages to pre-emptively answer it. People asking this question are talking about the activity at their bird feeders. And this fall, more people than ever, even well outside our area, have been noting less feeder activity. So what’s going on? (Spoiler alert – get ready for a 600-word version of “I don’t really know”.)

Local philanthropist, gentleman, scholar, and member of the birdseed industrial complex Mike O’Connor, proprietor of the Birdwatcher’s General Store in Orleans, said he’s been constantly hearing that people have no birds at their feeders. Seed sales are apparently way down both locally and for regional suppliers - one wholesaler said it was the worst stretch in their history. It’s so bad that some birdseed barons are having to sell off their private islands in the Maldives. I’m kidding of course — they are keeping their islands.

In my neighborhood, I can confirm that birds are visiting my feeders less. But I’m not aware of there being fewer actual birds — when I walk around the neighborhood, I see the usual number and variety of birds, they just aren’t coming to feeders much. I watch the mixed flock of titmice and chickadees foraging around in the trees and thickets, mostly ignoring the well-stocked feeders at multiple houses in the neighborhood. I looked at my eBird checklists from the last couple of years at this time and there’s no difference between then and now.

Encouragingly, the occasional big mixed flock of goldfinches, House Finches, juncos, bluebirds, and the odd Pine Warbler have started coming through the yard periodically over the last week or two. I’ve seen as many as 15 bluebirds in this flock, though they aren’t yet visiting my suet feeders like they do later in the winter. Mostly they have been stripping fruit from winterberries, cedars, and invasives like burning bush. And a bird store owner in mid-coast Maine, where everyone was also reporting no birds at their feeders this fall, said by mid-November the birds were back at feeders up there. So maybe we just need to wait a little longer.

But this doesn’t answer why the birds were turning their beaks up at birdseed all fall. I think the usual suspects — warmer than average weather and plenty of natural food sources, is what’s to blame for the low feeder activity. Additionally, many birds from further north stayed north this year, like Red-breasted Nuthatches. Various seed and fruit crops are apparently high in the southern boreal forest, likely keeping everything from Purple Finches and goldfinches to waxwings and young chickadees from coming south as they sometimes do. And local foods like cedar fruits and late season insects keep the birds already here sated.

One of my pet, though unproven theories is that the abundant, non-native winter moths, those little brown jobs fluttering around your headlights and lit windows lately, provide tons of natural food for our local overwintering birds, making them too full for that side of seed. In the winter moth’s native range of Europe, birds related to our chickadees and titmice are known to feed on the adult moths in winter. And why wouldn’t they? The female moths don’t even have wings, they just sit there on tree trunks waiting to be eaten. Researchers there even showed that the birds can detect the female moths by smelling their mating pheromones, something our local birds may also be able to do.

So there you have it, some semi-educated speculation and wild, unproven theories. Stay tuned next week for more of the hard-hitting ornithological guesswork you’ve come to depend on here at the Weekly Bird Report.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.