In every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior in her column “Since You Asked.” Julie is supervisor of avian research at the Rouge River Bird Observatory at the University of Michigan Dearborn and a research associate at the university’s Environmental Interpretive Center. She blogs about her research at net-results.blogspot.com, and she maintains the website Coffee & Conservation, a thorough resource on where coffee comes from and its impact on wild birds. Here’s a question Julie answered in our October 2013 issue:
For the last month, my friends and I have had no birds at our feeders. What is happening? Has a hawk moved in? — Henry Kutash, Fairfield, Connecticut
I get this question frequently from different parts of the country and about different types of birds. Equally often, I get the opposite question: Why have so many birds suddenly showed up at my feeders?
The birds that visit our feeders do not rely on them exclusively for food but use them as convenient supplements for wild food. In years when natural seeds or berries are plentiful, birds are less likely to visit feeders.
You are also correct in suspecting that a hawk may be partly responsible. Raptors have large hunting areas (an entire neighborhood, for example), so they often play a part in feeder absences. Other predators, especially outdoor cats, can also shut down activity at a feeding station.
To learn more about population trends at feeders, I encourage you to join Project FeederWatch, conducted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Participants from across North America submit counts of birds at their feeders a few times a month in winter. Using the data, researchers can determine if you are experiencing a real population decline or if a temporary regional phenomenon is at work. Find out more and sign up at www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2013 issue of BirdWatching magazine.