For the Birds Radio Program: Low winter feeder activity

Original Air Date: Jan. 21, 1987

If there are so many good birds around, why aren’t they at feeders?

Duration: 3′25″


(Recording of a European Starling)

Even though this is one of the best winters on record for birders in Duluth, it’s one of the poorest for feeder watchers. A lot of people have been asking why there are nothing but sparrows and starlings in their yards–how can there be redpolls, pine grosbeaks, and boreal chickadees all around if not a single one has showed up at most feeders?

The problem has been the mild weather. Temperatures have been high for so long that most birds in town haven’t needed as much food as they usually do–just like our furnaces haven’t needed as much fuel as last year. And, with the small amount of snow on the ground, what food most birds need is available naturally. Weed seeds aren’t covered by snow as they usually are.

Some birds that are more abundant than normal are never common at feeders. Pileated woodpeckers are around, but most are too shy to visit feeders. I’ve been seeing a lot of sign of pileateds, especially along the South Shore–they dig enormous holes, as much as eight inches deep, often near the base of a tree, as they hunt out nests of carpenter ants and wood-boring beetles. Now that days are lengthening, you may hear their call. (Recording of a Pileated woodpecker)

Boreal chickadees hardly ever come to feeders. In my yard, my pair comes to suet, if they can get it before the gray jays carry it all off. The way I usually notice my boreal chickadees is by their activity. The two that stay with the black-caps in my neighborhood are starting to be aroused by the lengthening days, and often chase each other from tree to tree. If I see two dark birds whizzing past, they’re sure to be the Boreal Chickadees. Occasionally I hear their call–a pitiful version of the call of a black-capped chickadee.

(Recording of a Boreal Chickadee)

At least one Northern Hawk-Owl was still around late last week–it was being sighted both on the Lester Rivr Road about a mile and a half north of Superior Street and on the West Tischer Road just west of the North Tischer Road. And five different species of gulls are still in the area–sometimes at the Duluth landfill, and sometimes at the Superior dump, on Wisconsin Point. But probably the most encouraging sighting last week was of a gyrfalcon heading toward the harbor. The gyr is the largest falcon of all, a bird of the far north. It’s one of the most sought after birds by falconers, including Middle Eastern kings and sheiks, and also one of the most wanted birds by bird watchers. Duluth’s fame as a bird-watcher’s mecca has been partly due to the fact that we’ve had at least one gyrfalcon in our harbor 6 of the past 7 winters. The other bird of the far north that Duluth is famous for is the snowy owl. This year one snowy owl has been hanging around Haines Road, between the mall area and the airport. There’s been one in the harbor near the Cargill grain elevator, and at least one or two around 40th Avenue West. Snowy Owls used to be much more common in Duluth in winter–now that grain shipments are down and poisons are occasionally used to kill the rats in the harbor, the rat population is down, and most of the snowy owls now spend their winters elsewhere.

(Recording of a Snowy Owl)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”