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Snow Birds

Posted on Feb 4, 2015

Winter Birds Forecast #5 is brought to you by Audubon Connecticut in partnership with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History.

Snow Birds

The weather has taken a snowy turn this winter and indications are that the trend could continue.  Whether you dread the next storm or look forward to every run of the models to look for the next snow opportunity, snow is a fact of life in New England.  Snow has a huge impact on both birds and birding and knowing how birds adapt to the snow can enhance your winter birding experience.

One thing that nearly all of us can agree on is that Northern Cardinals look better in the snow.  The crimson plumage of the male or bright bill of the female is set off beautifully with a white background.  Before, during and after a snow is a great time to see Northern Cardinals, as they visit feeders with more frequency during snowy weather.  This is because natural food sources will get covered and feeders offer easy pickings for these birds that have recently colonized our area from the south.


Cardinals were once a rare bird in the state and it wasn’t until the 1940’s that we regularly began seeing them here.  The increased popularity of bird feeding in the post-war era may have helped this species and a few others expand their range northward.  This male Northern Cardinal was photographed at the Audubon Center at Bent of the River in Southbury last week.


“Roadside Hawks”

Snowy weather can impact more than just feeder bird activity.  Birds of all kinds are very tuned in to changes in weather.  They are sensitive to changes in barometric pressure perhaps because of their hollow bones and the large air sacs that make up their respiratory system.  As a storm approaches they will go into a feeding frenzy in case they have weather related flight delays, making the approach and early stages of a storm a good time to get out and look for hawks and other birds of prey.

After a snowfall can also be a great time to get out and look for raptors like this immature Red-tailed Hawk.  Many raptors will hunker down during bad weather and once the weather clears will spend more time actively hunting to make up for lost work time. After a snowfall they are often drawn to plowed areas such as roadsides, as these areas can be good hunting or scavenging grounds.


Unwelcome Visitor?

Hawks have to eat too, but not everyone is happy to have such visitors at their bird feeders.   Red-tailed Hawks are the most familiar of our day flying raptors.  They specialize in hunting small mammals, but will also scavenge road kill or take other prey as opportunities arise.   Some hawks are specialists though.  The accipiters and falcons (the latter not really related to hawks other than being fellow birds) specialize in hunting other birds.  One species in particular, the Cooper’s Hawk, has learned that bird feeders are a great area to hunt. Their cousins the Sharp-shinned Hawk have learned this to a lesser degree, but have to be a bit more stealthy about it to avoid being on the larger Cooper’s Hawk menu.   Both species can be more frequent visitors in snowy weather.

These hawks are spectacular native birds and are currently recovering from historically low population levels.  The Cooper’s Hawk was formerly classified as “Threatened” in the state of Connecticut, but has recovered to the point where it was removed from the list.  Their smaller cousins the Sharp-shinned Hawk are still considered “Endangered” in the state.

My advice regarding hawks at your feeder is to think of them as just another species of bird you can enjoy seeing in your yard.  While it may be bad for the individual bird that gets caught by a hawk, predators are something that birds have to deal with and such natural predators have very little effect at the overall population level for the prey species.  In fact, one of the leading causes of mortality in hawks, especially younger birds, is starvation, and hunting at your feeders is helping them to survive.  Nearly all of our feeder bird species are doing quite well in population levels.

There are some things you can do to give your smaller birds an advantage in the game though.  Brush piles can offer shelter to the songbirds, as can plantings of dense shrubby vegetation and evergreens.  Providing some shelter as part of your landscaping in addition to putting out feeders can give them a fighting chance.  There seems to be a universal language among birds where many smaller birds will recognize the alarm calls of other species.  Chickadees and titmice in particular are good sentinels in the feeder crowd.  The high pitched alarm call of a Tufted Titmouse or the sharp “chunk” call of a robin will send all of the small birds scattering for shelter as it may mean a hawk is incoming.


The Original Snow Bird

Dark-eyed Juncos have been nick-named “snow birds” for a long time.  They are primarily ground feeders and snow cover can push them out of the woods and fields and into our yards or plowed roadsides in search of food.   In order to attract more juncos and other sparrows to my yard I generally scatter a thin amount of millet or other grains (cheap birdseed mix will do in a pinch) before, during and after a snow event.  Be careful not to scatter too much as you don’t want piles of damp and rotting seeds on the ground.   As time passes after a snowfall, more natural food becomes exposed through wind, melting and sublimation, as well as from the digging action of ground feeding birds, and the birds will often recede into natural areas until the next storm arrives.

After the recent snowfalls I have been seeing large numbers of juncos along roadsides in country areas.  Take care to drive a little slower to avoid hitting them as they scatter upon your approach.   Raptors are also quite vulnerable to vehicle strikes when there is deep snow cover.


“Snow Geese?”

Well these aren’t exactly Snow Geese: the bird in the center is a Greater White-fronted Goose, a rare visitor to our area from Greenland and Canada Geese.   They seem content to wait out this snowstorm along the shores of Lake Zoar in Southbury.   Snow cover can have a big impact on geese whose favorite forage items like grass and corn stubble can be covered over by a big snow event.  Sometimes goose flocks will up and leave the area if we get too much snow, but other times they will wait it out a while and/or switch over to an aquatic diet of submerged vegetation if they can find some open water.  For now the flock that contains this visitor from Greenland is holding strong along the Housatonic River, as is the flock that contains two Barnacle Geese that are being seen in Enfield along the Connecticut River.


A Good Time to Watch the Feeders

As discussed in recent Winter Bird Forecasts there are decent numbers of “winter finches” around this year, including scattered reports of Pine Siskins, Purple Finches and a few Common Redpolls.  Keep those feeders full and you might get a treat.  Their favorite foods are Niger thistle and sunflower seeds, particularly hulled or sunflower chips.  They are especially attracted to stands of birch trees and weedy patches as well, so planning ahead by allowing a corner of your yard to grow weedy and by planting birch trees can increase your chances of attracting these periodic winter visitors to your yard.

One tip for effective snow bird feeding is to fill your feeders up the night before a storm (or even during a storm at night).  That way you won’t scare the birds away when you go out to fill the feeders and can enjoy the gathered flock when you look out the windows in the morning.


Not Very Impressed

Iceland Gulls are amazingly hardy birds and it isn’t likely that they are bothered by the recent cold weather, but the winter weather may still have an effect on such birds.  These birds are true arctic nesters and will often remain at high latitudes for the whole winter.  Each year a few, mostly young birds, come south to our area for the winter.  A particularly cold stretch of weather can push more of these birds to our area because of the lack of open water to the north and west (particularly true when the Great Lakes freeze over), or a when a deep snowfall to our north may cover up a food source that they are relying on to get through the winter.  It does seem that we get more Iceland Gulls when there is more extreme winter weather.  This was certainly the case this week below the Shepaug Dam in Southbury, where as many as 10 different Iceland Gulls have been seen on some days.


Not Fazed in the Least

If there is a bird that perhaps cares the least about snow it might be the Harlequin Duck.  They winter almost exclusively along rocky ocean shorelines in northern latitudes.  They are incredibly hardy birds and their winter habitat almost never freezes solid or is impacted by snow.  Strong storm-related winds can blow them off course at times though.  Harlequin Ducks are quite uncommon in Connecticut, but a male has been seen in recent days along the coast of Fairfield.  Whether or not it was blown into the Sound by any of the storms is not known, but it has been putting on a show for some lucky who have been flocking in from all parts of the state to see it.  These Harlequin Ducks were photographed at Beavertail State Park in Rhode Island, where they are much more regularly seen.

The Winter Birds Forecast is brought to you by Audubon Connecticut and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History.

Patrick Comins, Director of Bird Conservation, Audubon Connecticut
Scott Kruitbosch, Conservation & Outreach Coordinator, Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History