Over the past month or so, we have heard from many people asking about a noticeable decline in birds coming to their feeders. Where are all the birds???
There are many factors in play, but it is quite normal to notice a drop in feeder activity at this time of year (late summer through early fall), when there is an abundance of wild seeds and berries. This year in particular has been quite extraordinary in terms of the natural food available.
In the words of Pennsylvania naturalist Scott Weidensaul,
Keep in mind that we’ve just experienced one of the mildest Octobers (following one of the hottest Septembers) on record, both following one of the wettest summers in years. The abundance of natural food this year is truly extraordinary; there’s widespread and heavy acorn crops, a ton of cones of most of the conifers, lots of forb and grass seeds in the meadows and fields, and heavy berry and fruit crops. For example, in some woodlands here in Schuylkill County I’ve seen the ground almost carpeted with the dark blue (and highly nutritious) fruits of black gum, which are usually eaten almost before they hit the ground by catbirds, thrushes and other migrants.
Also, folks overlook the fact that while they may have the same species at their feeders year-round, it’s often not the same individual birds from season to season. I’ve heard from a number of people specifically that their goldfinches have disappeared. I know from banding over the years at my home that we have several seasonal changing of the guards of goldfinch populations, and that the individuals that are here during the summer are replaced by a different cohort in the winter. Given how mild it is, and how significantly the weather has impacted migration this fall, I’m not really surprised that while the summer resident goldfinches have moved out, the wintering birds haven’t shown up yet.
I suspect once it gets cold, and especially if we get some snow cover, we’ll have normal numbers. But even in the worst winter conditions, research has shown birds only get an average of about 10 percent of their diet from feeders, and this year the real smorgasbord is out in the wild.