May 18, 2013
Written by Jack Sanders
Thursday, 26 January 2012 14:09
Mike Tschebull of Darien has always been fascinated by how juncos and sparrows, among others, find enough food in winter.
“I know about birds that cache food for the winter,” he wrote recently. “I watch the seed showers from trees at this time of year and am now witnessing spruce and what are probably white pine seeds on our car port. Also, I’m seeing small round tan seeds that may be from birches, and there are ash seeds lying around. Which, if any bird, eats the seeds from solidago, eupatorium and asters? We have several winterberrys that get cleaned out by the robins before the end of October, but I see others nearby that still have all their fruit. Why the difference?”
Some birds eat the seeds of fall flowers like goldenrod and asters. One of the best compilations of what vegetation birds eat is American Wildlife and Plants: A Guide To Wildlife Food Habits (Dover, 2011), the latest edition of a book that’s been around since 1951. For instance, it reports goldenrod (Solidago) is popular with goldfinches, juncos, Pine Siskins, Swamp and Tree Sparrows, as well as grouse — plus a number of mammals.
In the case of berries, birds may be fussy about how old — and ripe — they are. Some varieties of berries won’t be eaten until well into winter — either because of chemistry changes in the seeds that occur with age and temperature, or because of desperation.
But these are just the showy (to us) foods. Humans tend to look at bird food from our own vantage point — we see only the biggest things songbirds eat. But the environment, even in snow-covered winter, is a supermarket full of tiny morsels of nutrition.
The bark of trees and shrubs bear a bounty of treats hidden to us, but not to the up-close eyes of songbirds. There are, of course, the seeds that birds have cached by tucking them into the crevices of bark. But there are also millions of overwintering insect eggs of all kinds and even insects themselves — minuscule caterpillars, for instance, which can survive being frozen while attached to a tree limb all winter.
The tiny Golden-crowned Kinglet relies on the latter. The smallest North American bird that can live through the kind of cold found in New England winters, the Golden-crowned Kinglet weighs only one-fifth of an ounce (less than some hummingbird species), yet the bird inhabits the woods of Maine throughout the winter. What’s more, it doesn’t eat seeds, unusual for a wintering bird.
How kinglets survive fascinated Berndt Heinrich, the professor, naturalist and author of books on birds and winter life. To uncover the secret of their diet, Heinrich had to shoot a kinglet in mid-winter, open its stomach and inspect the contents. He found it full of a tiny species of inchworm that the bird had plucked off branches. “Nobody had ever reported finding caterpillars on trees in the northern winter before,” he wrote. “But this bird and subsequent birds were proof of something new and unexpected.”
So unless we have an ice storm so bad that it encases all our trees and shrubs in ice for days, our birds are not apt to starve in even the coldest, snowiest winter.
Ben Oko of Ridgefield has been involved in and highly recommends Audubon Connecticut’s free, four-day program for persons interested in birds, birding and conservation: Feb. 22, March 7 and 21, at the Bridgeport Town Hall Annex plus April 4 in the field.
“That birds and bird populations are under a whole host of threats is well known. The purpose of this program is to give training to the participants to make them able to combat these threats,” Ben said. The course includes identification, life history, conservation, and field techniques.
An “exciting variety of persons including experts in birds and birding, conservation and field sciences” will teach. Students must partake in at least 20 hours of volunteer time after its completion. For information and application, see below under Coming Up.
Hudson River EagleFest, celebrate the Bald Eagle on the Hudson River, Saturday, Feb. 4 (snow date: Feb 5), 9 to 4, free, Croton Point County Park, Croton on Hudson, N.Y., www.teatown.org/eaglefest.
First Sunday Bird Walks at Greenwich Point (Tod’s Point), Feb. 5, March 4, 9 to 11 a.m., spotting scopes available, free; sponsored by Wild Wings, Bruce Museum and Audubon Greenwich; for info., Meredith Sampson, 203-637-9822.
Bird Gardening, five-session class on how to attract birds with plants, with Julia Cencebaugh Kloth, Wednesdays, Feb. 8, 15, 22, 29, March 7, 7 to 9 p.m., $97; Ridgefield Continuing Education, at East Ridge Middle School, ridgefieldschools.org, 203-431-9995.
Training session for Great Backyard Bird Count, Saturday, Feb. 18, 1 to 2:30; Audubon Greenwich, 613 Riversville Road, RSVP 203-869-5272 x230.
Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb. 17-20, www.birdsource.org.
Master Bird Conservationist program, classes with and field trip, Feb. 22, March 7, 21, April 4; free, but volunteer service expected, Connecticut Audubon, at Bridgeport City Hall Annex; audubonct.org or 203-264-5098.
Eagle Viewing Trips, on Connecticut River, Feb. 11 through March 18; 9, 11:30 and 2 on weekends, and 10 and 1 on Thursdays, $40, Connecticut Audubon, 1-800-996-8747
Cuba bird study, trip with Connecticut Audubon, survey work involved, March 3-15, 860-767-0660.
Copyright 2012 by Jack Sanders. Send sightings or comments to: jackfsanders [at sign] gmail.com, or to Bird Notes, Box 1019, Ridgefield, CT 06877. If you need help identifying a bird, try your local nature center. If you find an injured bird, call wildlife rehabilitator Darlene Wimbrow of Redding, 203-438-0618, Wildlife in Crisis of Weston, 203-544-9913, or Wild Wings of Greenwich, 203-637-9822. The columnist’s website is www. sandersbooks. com.
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