During the time we were under the extended influence of the Arctic air mass a week and a half ago, I received many questions about the weather’s effect on local birds. My answer was “Don’t worry… too much.”
Our local wildlife, including our beloved feeder birds, are well equipped and adapted to handle temperatures even as low as those we experienced. Feathers are excellent insulation and there is natural food available, enough to keep birds alive even without the aid of feeders. But, they know a good situation when they find it.
They are opportunistic foragers, and when the opportunity for an easy snack presents itself, they take it. Notice I said “snack.” I think if we were all to take down our feeders tomorrow the chickadees, cardinals, titmice, nuthatches, finches, doves, woodpeckers, sparrows and others would all do just fine without them.
Feeders play a relatively small role in local birds’ lives. I even saw hummingbirds during the cold picking small insects off shrubs, and they are known to visit sapsucker wells to get the sweet sap. Other species do this too, like ruby-crowned kinglets.
Folks who feed birds regularly know unusual weather does increase feeder activity, and I am glad to provide a little extra boost for those birds that don’t normally come to feeders as often as some others. Once the conditions return to normal, feeder activity drops back to the levels previously seen.
Not all our backyard birds will make it through the extreme times though. Even normal winter conditions claim lives. Old and weak individuals will fall to the cold or to predators regardless of the conditions. Individuals that “hug” feeders, that is sit on a feeder for extended periods without only occasional eating, are often weak or sick. We see this in house finches for example.
A feeder may sustain an infirm individual a bit longer than if they did not have access to it, but the outcome will be the same.
There is some debate about whether feeding birds is helping or harming birds. In many ways, I think feeding birds offers more benefit to the feeder than to the birds. Any activity that connects us to nature and arouses curiosity about our natural world is worthwhile.
I happen to think feeding birds helps them short term, and any human interest it inspires helps them in the long run. I’m heading out to refill my feeding station right now.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont