Where have the birds gone & what can gardeners do about it?

cardinal in snow by Stofko
There was plenty of snow in Depew’s Losson Park in February 2016. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Have you noticed that you haven’t had as many birds at your bird feeder lately? The cause is simple: lack of snow.

Something you probably didn’t notice is that the number of birds in North America is down by almost 3 billion birds since 1970. That’s a big concern, but there are things that gardeners can do to help.

No birds at your feeder?

A reader left this comment on a previous article:

I live in the Amherst/Eggertsville area and have been feeding the birds for years. Over the last six months, the number of birds have been declining and over the last several weeks, there are no birds at all except for a few black birds. My next-door neighbor commented on the same thing. I just get a few squirrels. Does anyone know what’s happening?

Sandy Hendricks

I thought this was odd, so I asked an expert what might be happening.

Of course, a lot of birds have left the area for the winter, said Tom Kerr, naturalist with the Buffalo Audubon Society. But it’s snow– or lack of it– that’s the reason Hendricks isn’t seeing as many birds as she would expect at this time of year.

“It was the same at Beaver Meadow,” Kerr said. The number of birds visiting feeders was light “until we got 18 inches of snow” last week. That band of heavy snow missed northern Erie County.

Birds enjoy other food sources, such as berries and insects, he explained. They can still find dormant insects under leaves.

“Most birds use feeders for only part of their diet, even in summer,” Kerr said.

When the bare areas of Western New York get some snow, expect to see more birds at your feeders.

Number of birds down by 3 billion

North America is home to nearly three billion fewer birds today compared to 1970—that’s more than 1 in 4 birds that have disappeared from the landscape, according to an Audubon article.

“This is something that is hard to see year to year,” Kerr said. “It’s been happening gradually over the past 50 years.”

Birds can’t depend on our feeders alone. They need insects, he said, especially caterpillars to feed their young. (Butterflies and moths are insects; caterpillars are a younger stage of butterflies and moths.) So if we want birds, we need to protect insects.

“We’ve taken away insects’ habitat,” he said. “Forests, grasslands and wetlands have been taken over by homes, malls and factories.

“If we help insects, we help birds.”

In addition to habitat loss, factors that affect insects and, in turn, birds are pollution and pesticides. Scientists, with the help of citizens, are also looking at the effects of climate change on birds.

How gardeners can help birds

Plant natives

When you plant native plants, you provide habitat for the insects that birds eat. Kerr contrasted the Norway maple, a non-native tree, with native oaks.

“Insects don’t recognize the Norway maple as food,” he said, “so it will always look nice.” Unfortunately, it won’t provide any food for birds.

A native oak, on the other hand, provides a welcoming habitat for hundreds of kinds of butterflies and other insects. The oak “may have chewed-up leaves, but that’s a sign of life!” he said.

To understand the importance of habitat, Kerr recommends the book Bring Nature Home by Doug Tallamy. You can also hear a talk by Tallamy here, which was sponsored by the WNY Land Conservancy.

Here are some places to find out what plants are native to our area:

Avoid pesticides

Use pesticides only when you absolutely have to.

Remember that even if pesticides are organic, such as neem oil, they can kill beneficial insects in addition to the pests you are targeting. Always follow the directions carefully.

Decrease pollution in your garden

Stop using a gas mower, mow less often and turn some of your lawn into garden. These are some ways to cut down pollution in your garden.

Small steps for climate change

According to Audubon’s 2019 climate change report, Survival By Degrees, up to two-thirds of North American birds are vulnerable to extinction due to climate change. The good news is that there are plenty of opportunities to protect birds. Just starting the conversation can help.

Also check out our Events page for activities to count birds and learn more about them.

6 Comments on “Where have the birds gone & what can gardeners do about it?

  1. Thanks to all these great suggestions on making your yard hospitable for birds. Susan, thanks for reminding us that sometimes there are widespread issues that affect large areas and sometimes it’s very local!

  2. I live in Erie, PA and have noticed the same thing – the level of my feeders hasn’t dropped much in over a week. The seed in the feeders was fine. Then I happened to glance out my window to see a Cooper’s hawk perched on the fence that is near my feeder – I think I found my answer!

  3. We have more birds than ever,blue jays,cardinals,black birds and the other day we had a blue bird.I feed in three areas and we use sunflower seed and shelled peanuts and regular peanuts.We also buy a tub of peanut butter and make sandwiches and rip them apart so everyone has a treat and we have suet and block feeders for the woodpeckers,

  4. Thank you for the comments/explanations re: “lack of birds at birdfeeders”. I’m another one of those concerned about having/seeing so few birds at this time of the year. I have lots of crows and squirrels eating the seeds but I do miss seeing the birds.

  5. I just got a heater for my bird bath and they love it! I am so pleased. I was surprised they bathe in it even when it’s cold.

  6. Hi friends, it’s so sad to hear that some folks have been seeing less birds at there feeders. I have a nice selection of birds and would like to share a few thoughts that might be helpful. Water is just as important as food! I have a heated birdbath and it gets a lot of attention. Near by cover is important- don’t put your feeder in the middle of an open space- birds need protection from predators and inclement weather. If you’re putting out seed don’t even bother with cheap millet; birds appreciate the higher fat content of sunflower and safflower seeds. Suet is also welcome. My favorite food is unshelled peanuts ( in the shell), I get regular winter visits from several kinds of woodpeckers, nut Hatcher’s, blue jays, cardinals, chickadees and juncos. If you use a seed mixture make sure to scatter some on the ground for birds like mourning doves that prefer to eat on the ground. As mentioned several times in this column and other information sources the most important thing is your year-round habitat; if you support them with native plants and a variety of trees, shrubs, etc. they”ll be more likely to stay in the area year-round or return if they migrate. I realize this is getting rather long but I’m obviously an enthusiastic birder! One final comment- put your feeders and bird baths where you can see them from a window in the winter and where they’re easy to access.

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