University City

The arctic vortex that caused last week’s frigid weather is hard on birds, too

The arctic vortex that brought all the cold air last week isn’t just hard on people; it’s hard on wildlife and birds, too. What can University City residents do to help birds survive the cold?

This winter, we’ve seen lots of action at our bird feeders: a daily fly-in of Carolina chickadee, tufted titmouse, house finch and Carolina wren. Cardinals steal the spotlight each time one glides over in a scarlet flash from the bare limbs of the fig tree.

My brother Bob, an ornithologist and past director of the Dungeness River Audubon Center in Sequim, Wash., said feeders are more for people than for birds: a handy way to attract birds so we can enjoy watching them.

In weather this cold, however, even Bob conceded that keeping feeders full is a sensible step. The Humane Society recommends using a regionally appropriate seed mix that includes such calorie-rich seeds as black oil sunflower, which also has a thin shell that’s easy to crack.

Another good idea is to provide suet, a good source of energy and protein when insects are hard to find.

In the blog for their local birder-friendly store, Bird House on The Greenway (, Carol Buie and Jay Jackson said providing fresh water is essential, too.

“If you have a bird bath heater, now is the time to make sure it is hooked up and ready to go. Because liquid water will be hard to find, if you have a heated bird bath, it will be very popular,” Buie and Jackson wrote on their blog.

A low-tech alternative is to add warm water and to regularly break up the ice and stir the water.

Birds need shelter as well. The best long-term solution is to create habitat by including native plants in your landscaping for nesting sites and food sources.

In the short term, leave empty bird houses outdoors through the winter to provide birds a place to gather out of the cold. (Bob says chickadees particularly enjoy communal roost-ins.)

Buie and Jackson want to know whether you still have your Christmas tree, Hanukkah bush or solstice shrub. If you do, they suggest laying it on the ground in a corner of your yard to improvise an instant avian sanctuary. Now that’s recycling!

Buie is a veteran Charlotte environmental leader and a recognized authority on native plants and composting, as well as a passionate birder and the chairwoman of the N.C. Wildlife Federation. She sees one bright side to the cold weather:

“Bird watching should be great for the next few days,” Buie said, “so pull up a chair to the window and enjoy!”

This year, the unusual cold, along with other factors scientists are still trying to understand, has pushed northern species far south of their usual ranges. You may even see a snowy owl; they have been spotted this year as far south as Charleston.

Hordes of cankerworms

A closing note about cankerworms and tree bands:

Billy DeRosa of Silver Duck Tree Banding Services ( responded to my recent recommendation to band trees this month, if you hadn’t already done so.

I thought the mass migration of female cankerworms up local trees had not yet taken place, but I was wrong. I’m grateful that DeRosa set me straight. His firm bands more than 10,000 trees each year, and he said their test strips clearly show that “a mass crawl has already occurred.”

DeRosa thinks banding now won’t work. The firm offers an alternative, spraying treetops when caterpillars start to emerge with a safe and effective organic control, a natural soil bacteria known by its initials, BT.

The other option is to suffer through the Hitchcockesque onslaught and resolve to get those bands up this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

DeRosa reports that Concord has been the worst affected area recently: Some test traps have collected more than 10,000 female moths. Zip codes 28209, 28211 and 28226 have all been especially active during the past four years, he reports.

Maybe, since these isn’t much else to eat right now, let’s hope those birds we’re trying to help will reciprocate by chowing down on chilled cankerworm moths this week, before they have a chance to lay their eggs.