Winter birds

This afternoon, I heard the querulous call of my first yellow-bellied sapsucker of the season. This migratory woodpecker breeds in mixed coniferous woodlands in the northern forests, then winters in the southern U. S. and in Mexico. Unlike their woodpecker cousins, sapsuckers prefer to feed on live trees. They take a delicate approach to drilling, making horizontal lines of holes from which they drink sap and eat sap-tippling insects. With the sapsucker’s arrival, Sewanee’s woodpecker count is up to seven species. The others are: pileated, hairy, downy, red-bellied, red-headed, and northern flicker. (The endangered red-cockaded woopecker used to breed in Savage Gulf, just north of here, but has been extirpated from Tennessee for more than thirty years.)

So far, this has been a good year for sightings of winter birds. Pine siskins have been quite abundant and I saw a pair of red-breasted nuthatches in early October. In some winters both these species are rare or absent. All this good birding for southerners results from hard times for the birds up north. When pine and hardwood seed crops are poor in Canada and the Northeast, birds are driven south by hunger.

According to Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists, this will be a bad year for northern seed crops. His “bird forecast” focuses on Ontario, but what happens up north will be reflected in bird life across the country.

Humans add an interesting overlay to this natural year-to-year variation in food supply. As I note in The Forest Unseen, our love of birds results in the transport of millions of tons of sunflower seeds from the former prairies into bird feeders all over the country. This makes life easier for many birds, causing some of them to expand their winter ranges northward. Bird-hunting hawks therefore also linger in the northern woods. Our bribes have shifted the calculus of migration.

We know surprisingly little about how feeders affect the day-to-day behavior and ecology of birds. New technology, deployed (appropriately enough) at Sapsucker Woods where the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is located, is starting to shed some light into these questions. Least we humans feel left out, the same technology is being used to study our own “day-to-day behavior and ecology” and, like the birds, as long as the sunflower seeds keep coming, we’re happy to play along.

12 thoughts on “Winter birds

  1. Elizabeth Dornbush

    This explains why my feeder in Northern Ontario is being flooded early this winter with siskins and redpolls, along with the usual bluejays and more chickadees then we’ve seen in a few years. I have at least one white breasted nuthatch, (a neighbour has a rosy breasted one), and some erratic pine grosbeaks. My woodpeckers, hairy and downy, have been checking the feeders but, until today, it’s been too warm to put out the fat they like. Our pileateds stay through the winter, but come to the feeders only occasionally…….it’s always an occasion to see one up close!

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      You have a fabulous collection of birds at your feeders. I have not seen a pine grosbeak in years.

      We have quite a few pileateds here — I agree that seeing one up close is quite the experience! I found a pileated nest last year which was a good find to share with students. The woodpecker young are quite boisterous when they get older, hanging their heads out of the nest hole and begging.

  2. Denise

    There is a tree by the beach in Lincoln Park, West Seattle that is covered with thousands of little holes…I think it’s the work of a sapsucker. I’ve never seen them in action, though. Just today, there was a pod of orcas that swam right by that beach! I only saw the photos, but exciting, anyway!

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      You definitely have sapsuckers in Seattle (red-breasted, if I remember right). They pepper trees with little holes. Hard-working little birds.

      Orcas?! The only proper response: swoon. Such amazing amazing animals.

  3. Anonymous

    I was very excited to see my first red-breasted nuthatch in Georgia. It arrived shortly after Sandy, so I wondered if the weather drove it here. So excited so see my winter birds returning and wonder what newcomers may show up.

    Did you discontinue your public Facebook page? I used to get your posts, but can’t find you there anymore.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Glad to hear that you enjoyed the sight of the r-b nuthatch. They are beautiful little birds. Listen for the “tin trumpet” call!

      I changed my privacy settings on Facebook. After the stream of negativity that followed a recent blog about me I decided I’d rather not have my FB account fully open to the public. I also think that there are more general privacy issues on Facebook and having a fully open account compounds those issues. I’m still not exactly sure what to make of FB and its unabashed goal of gathering our clicking data and selling it to commercial interests. For now, I’m staying on. If you have a FB account you can friend me or subscribe to my feed. Thanks for your interest! (My twitter account is open to all.)

  4. Donna

    I have wondered if feeding birds and thereby squirrels, reduces the seed dispersal of less handy and fat-filled seeds of native plants.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Donna, My understanding is that the ecology of bird feeders is very poorly understood. I would guess that only in areas that are very well-stocked with feeders would local native seed dispersal suffer.

  5. Elizabeth Dornbush

    An update from Sudbury Ontario, outside the city. We have a very loyal flock of ten to twenty pine grosbeaks this year, the first ever at our feeders. Although thehy are ravenous feeders, and we are considering a new mortgage to buy sunflower seed, just the flashes of brilliant pink as they fly through the sunlight make it all very worthwhile!


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