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Nonmigratory Birds (How you can help them this winter)

Article and photographs  by Logan Parker, MLRC Community Engagement Coordinator

The Belgrade Lakes watershed hosts a wide variety of bird life all throughout the year. In summer months, our lakes and the surrounding lands provide essential habitat for a range of birds- from large wading birds, such as Great Blue Herons, to tiny songbirds like the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. During Fall and Spring while annual migrations are in full-swing, a host of birds passing to and from their breeding grounds stop into the watershed. “Seasonal residents” is not a term limited to humans in our watershed.

Just as there are seasonal residents in the Belgrade Lakes, there are also a hardy bunch of year-rounders. The (typical) harshness of the Maine winter makes the interior of the state largely uninhabitable for the majority of birds during the coldest months of the year. However, that’s not to say that there are no birds residing our watershed after the lakes have frozen over and the landscape has been blanketed in snow. As any resident feeder-keeper can tell you, there are a handful of nonmigratory birds fit enough to resident in our watershed during even the most unrelenting winter storms.

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Dark-eyed Junco, a gray sparrow often spotted foraging for seeds below feeders.

These nonmigrants face an onslaught of foul weather, chilling winds, and a great scarcity of food and water. While each of these winter residents is marvelously adapted to survive the rigors of the Maine winter, there are a number of actions that those of us who enjoy birds can take to make their lives a little easier. Here are a few tips on how you can help  nonmigratory species in our watershed.

  1. Setting up a bird feeder or two is one of the simplest ways to make the lives of winter birds a little easier. Afraid these birds might become too dependent on these hand-outs? Worry not! Studies by researchers at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology show that “even birds with full access to feeders consume three-quarters of their diet elsewhere, and that when feeder birds are deprived of supplemental foods, they quickly revert to an all-natural diet”(2009).

    2.  When feeding birds in winter, black-oil sunflower seeds are a great option. These highly nutritious and thin-shelled seeds appeal to a wide array of birds. Providing a mix that contain these seeds is “often wasteful”. Many “birds may eat the prized sunflower seeds and leave the rest” (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2009).

    3.  Another excellent feeding option is to provide suet- raw, hardened beef fat. As you can probably imagine, this offering is a great source of energy and is especially attractive to insect-eating birds such as chickadees and woodpeckers. Birds in cold climates especially appreciate these high-energy foods. “Suet can quickly become rancid in warm weather, but some commercial suet cakes can be used year-round. (These) suet cakes often contain a mix of birdseeds or other ingredients”(Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2009). Suet can be easily and safely offered in specially designed feeders and cages.

    4.  When feeding wild birds, step should be taken to avoid the spread of diseases at your feeders. “Except during times when temperatures remain well below freezing, clean your feeders about once every two weeks, and more often during warm weather and times of heavy use” (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2009). You may notice a build up of seed hulls accumulating below your feeders. These piles actually pose a serious threat to birds as the decomposing hulls can harbor disease-causing bacteria or mold. Keep birds healthy by periodically raking below your feeders to break up these potentially dangerous piles.

    5.  Many people question whether or not feeding birds will alter the behavior of migratory birds. Researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology state that it is the “changing day length” that “cues most birds use to begin migrating” and not the relative availability of food. That being the case, “it is unlikely that feeding birds has any effect on migratory patterns”. That’s not to say that the feeding of birds makes no impact on bird behavior at all. In fact, “there is some evidence that a few nonmigratory species such as cardinals have expanded their ranges due in part to feeding” (Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2009).

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    Bohemian Waxwing, an irregular winter visitor from Northwestern North America.

    6. Have you ever considered landscaping for the birds? LakeSmart properties make excellent bird habitat even in winter! Planting native evergreen trees and shrubs is another great option for helping nonmigratory birds. The dense, year-round foliage on these plants can provide an excellent shelter from the elements. Planting fruit-barring plants can attract flocks of migratory fruit-eating birds such as American Robins, Cedar Waxwings, and Bohemian Waxwings that might otherwise pass over your property without a visit.

Here are a handful of the more common winter, “feeder birds” of the Belgrade Lakes watershed. Click on each of the photos below for more detailed profiles on each of these winter survivalists.

Citations:

“American Goldfinch.” All About Birds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2016. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_Goldfinch/id

“Black-capped Chickadee.” All About Birds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2016. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black-capped_Chickadee/id

“Downy Woodpecker.” All About Birds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2016. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Downy_Woodpecker/id

“Northern Cardinal.” All About Birds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2016. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/id

“Tufted Titmouse.” All About Birds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2016. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tufted_Titmouse/id

“White-breasted Nuthatch.” All About Birds. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2016. https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-breasted_Nuthatch/id

“Winter Bird Feeding.” Bird Notes from Sapsucker Woods. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, 2009.