Where did the birds go?

Bird experts caution against jumping to quick conclusions based on bird counts in a single yard or n

Categories: News, Schenectady County

Paul Pakan has lived in Schenectady’s Woodlawn neighborhood for about 50 years and is accustomed to see his yard fill with birds at morning and night, drawn by his four feeders.

But something is amiss.

“I’ve seen zero blue jays,” Pakan said. “They’re gone. Zero starlings. I always got woodpeckers. This year there are none, zero. My neighbors say the same thing.”

Pakan said he usually refills his feeders once a week, but this year the bird seed level has barely dropped an inch since the feeder was filled at the beginning of November. He noted that a hawk came to the area about five years ago, but believes the absence of birds he’s experiencing this winter is too dramatic to be attributed to the hawk. “There was a big drop-off after Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “When Sandy came through, the birds disappeared.”

Pakan isn’t the only person wondering where all the birds went. Other readers have written to the Gazette with the same question.

“Our backyard here in Delanson is usually teeming with birds this time of year, but for the last couple of months, hardly any,” wrote Jack Brown, of Delanson. “We have consumed only about one-fourth of our normal annual black oil sunflower seed, and most of that was in early winter and late fall. A few turkeys wander by occasionally, but they don’t stay because there is no spillage from the feeder. The squirrels are also missing, probably for the same reason.”

Bird experts caution against jumping to quick conclusions based on bird counts in a single yard or neighborhood.

They say that the fruit and seed crops eaten by many species of birds are not as abundant this year, and that many birds have likely migrated elsewhere in search of food. They also suggested that seemingly small changes in a bird’s habitat, such as the arrival of an outdoor cat, can cause birds to stay away.

“Birds are always moving and changing their habitat based on the weather and boom and bust resources,” said John Loz, president of the Audubon Society of the Capital Region. “Readers may not be seeing birds, but they are still around.”

Bernie Grossman, president of the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club, said in an email that “there is no simple answer” for why some people are seeing fewer birds, “because there are many variables to consider. In general, the number of birds will depend upon factors like weather severity, snow cover, the nature of the yard in question and the quality of feed being offered. This year, severe weather was late in coming and snow cover has not been particularly troublesome, so birds have not been forced into feeders as much.”

Grossman added, “We should also note that spring and summer were unusually hot and dry. This may have affected the reproductive success of many of our common avian residents.”

Nancy Castillo, who owns Wild Birds Unlimited Nature Shop in Wilton, said when she hears people complain about a lack of birds, she asks them whether there has been a change in their yard or the surrounding area — whether an outdoor cat has moved to the neighborhood, or a hawk has taken up residence. “Admittedly some birds are in decline because of habitat loss and the use of pesticides,” she said.

Castillo said that it’s actually been a very good winter for bird activity in the Capital Region, but that a couple of her Schenectady County customers reported that they weren’t seeing the same number of birds as usual.

Between mid-December and early January, Christmas Bird Counts are held throughout the Western Hemisphere. A project of the National Audubon Society, the counts enlist volunteers to conduct censuses of local bird populations.

The most recent Schenectady Christmas Bird Count recorded a big drop in birds, from 12,600 individual sightings in 2011 to 7,482, but coordinator Larry Alden said people shouldn’t read too much into a one-year decline. He noted that the weather for the 2012 bird count was lousy. “It was just above freezing, we’d gotten two inches of rain, and there were 30 mile per hour winds,” he said. “No birder wanted to go out, and no bird wanted to go out.”

Alden also coordinates the Troy Christmas Bird Count, which he said was held on a much nicer day than the Schenectady Christmas Bird Count. This year volunteers reported 15,612 individual bird sightings, down slightly from 2011’s total of 15,672. “That’s amazingly close,” he said.

Alden said birds remain in the Capital Region during the winter “because there’s food. If there’s no food, they’re not going to be hanging out.” He said that when birds disappear from a yard, “it could be that there’s a feeder down the street with better stuff, or a hawk or a cat.”

The Albany County Christmas Bird Count also recorded a big drop in birds — a 27 percent decline in the number of individual birds sighted. In a typical year, volunteers count between 10,000 and 12,000 birds. Particularly notable was the drastic drop in the number of robins sighted — an all-time low of 12, down from an average tally of 1,250. Fewer blue jays, eastern bluebirds, house finches, European starlings, white-throated sparrows and American goldfinches were recorded.

“We had such a poor food crop last summer, caused by early warm weather and a late frost,” said Alan Mapes, who coordinates the Albany County Christmas Bird Count. As a result, the supply of small fruits that many bird species like to eat, such as grapes and crab apples, have been in low supply this winter, and it’s possible birds that typically winter in the area have migrated farther south in search of a more abundant source of food, he said.

Mapes said that there were also fewer rose hips than usual, which might explain why there appear to be fewer mockingbirds. The rose hip is the fruit of the multiflora rose plant, and it tends to attract mockingbirds.

“I think the mockingbirds have shifted to a better wintering location,” Mapes said. “Normally we have a mockingbird in our yard during the winter. But the rose hips are not what they used to be.”

Mapes described the low bird count numbers as “a blip. I think it has to do with the really poor food crop.” He said that the day of the county was “fairly windy, but it was not a horrible day.”

There was some good news.

Volunteers also recorded a few all-time highs counts: Great blue herons, Canada geese, hooded mergansers and barred owls were counted in greater numbers than ever before.

Mapes he said he wasn’t sure why these particular species were more abundant than usual, but noted that three of the four species are water birds. In recent years, the winters have been milder, and the water hasn’t been freezing over as much, which might keep water birds from moving south. “They’re not so worried about the cold, but they need open water to be able to feed,” he said.

Alden said that the primary purpose of the Christmas Bird Count is to identify long-term changes in the bird population. Are new species moving north? Are longtime species leaving the area?

“We’ve been seeing southern species work their way north,” he said. “We’ve been seeing cardinals, the tufted titmouse, mockingbirds in greater numbers. Black vultures and turkey vultures are being seen further north.”

Grossman said that this winter has been “an irruptive year,” with species such as the pine siskin, common redpoll and pine grosbeaks being more abundant than usual. An irruption is an incursion of birds that don’t typically winter in an area.

Over time, some bird species considered native to the area have declined.

For instance, the house finch’s numbers have been depleted as a result of house finch eye disease, a type of conjunctivitis that can make it more difficult for birds to feed due to crusty and swollen eyes.

Grossman, of the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club, said that in January he was visited by “large numbers of redpolls as well as goldfinches, house finches and dark-eyed juncos. Downy and hairy woodpeckers were also quite common.”

“On the other hand, we have also noticed low numbers of cardinals and the almost complete absence of blue jays. We have not moved our feeders around nor added or removed shrubs and other cover in our yard. Our food offerings haven’t changed either, nor have the woods around our house.”

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