For the Birds Radio Program: Cold Birds

Original Air Date: Jan. 14, 2005

In addition to all the Great Gray Owls, lots of other unusual birds are about.

Duration: 3′42″


Cold Birds

With all the Great Gray Owls in the northland right now, it’s hard for many people to remember that there are a lot of other birds around, too. A Yellow-billed Loon that belongs in the Pacific Ocean has been hanging around Agate Bay in Two Harbors since last week, along with two Harlequin Ducks. They may all still be there, though will be hard to see with all the steam from the severe cold in coming days. There don’t seem to be nearly as many waxwings around as usual, and birders are having trouble finding them, but redpolls and siskins are all over the place, and goldfinches are hanging around at a few feeders. It’s unusual to have redpolls two winters in a row—usually their irruptions occur every other year—but these dear and hardy little birds are always a welcome sight. Pine Grosbeaks are abundant north of Duluth, and on a few occasions have even visited my feeders. A few lucky people are getting Boreal Chickadees at their feeders. I’ve always had my best luck with Boreal Chickadees when I offer peanut butter.

A lot of birds have hunkered down during this harsh weather. On fine days, birds often abandon their favorite feeding stations to explore opportunities for emergency auxiliary backup food supplies, but they tend to rely on a few trusted feeders during the worst weather, and hide out in thick branches or tree cavities when they aren’t actively feeding. Pigeons and doves have fleshy feet, and in this kind of weather easily get frostbite, so when they’re not pigging out and stuffing their crops, they usually sit tight, their tummies warming their toes. If you’re going to be gone for a few wintry days when you have doves visiting your feeder, it’s an excellent idea to ask a neighbor to keep your feeders filled.

As winter deepens, more and more Boreal Owls are descending upon towns and cities. Boreal Owl expert Bill Lane has been putting up roost boxes for them—Boreal Owls lost a great many essential cavity trees during the huge blow down a few years ago, and Bill’s nest box program has given these feisty but fragile little predators critical shelter. But when hunting gets harder and harder, Boreal Owls are drawn to bird feeding stations. Keeping feeders full can make the difference between life and death for songbirds who must shiver to keep up their body temperature, and desperately need enough calories to fuel this muscle activity. And it can also help Boreal Owls. Of course they can’t digest bird food, and don’t even recognize it as a source of calories, but they do feed upon any mice that sneak out at night to feed on the spilled seed. So in winter, you provide direct aid to little owls by making sure there is bird seed beneath your conifer trees. Of course, it’s a good idea to skip the trees closest to your house. Not only does this prevent mice from discovering your house, it also helps prevent the Boreal Owls from hitting your windows.

Birds provide us with ever so much beauty, joy, and entertainment in winter. It’s an easy matter to return the favor with a little birdseed.