Going wild for birds
In this dark month of deep cold, you can bring wildlife and a hint of summer a bit closer by putting out a bird feeder.
It’s probably not a stretch to say the closest a majority of Americans get to wildlife is the bird feeder hanging in the back yard.
British author and ornithologist James Fisher once wrote that the first person known to feed wild birds was the sixth-century monk St. Serf of Fife “who tamed a robin by feeding it.”
Fifteen centuries later, bird feeding might be the second-most popular hobby after gardening.
A report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says upward of 55 million Americans 16 and over feed wild birds, spending more than $3 billion a year on bird food and $800 million a year on bird feeding accessories, including bird feeders, bird baths, bird houses and more.
“We’ve been scrambling to keep up this year,” said Larry Collins, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited store in the Village Plaza shopping center. “It’s been so cold and people are going through a lot of seed to keep the birds fed.”
One of the treats of winter feeding is finding an uncommon bird at your feeder, and this year birders all around the Western Slope are saying Common Redpolls are, well, common.
These fairly tame members of the finch family breed and nest in the tundra and sub-Arctic regions of North America and rarely make it to below the northern-tier states.
This year, however, there has been an irruption of Common Redpolls across the mid-regions of the U.S., and birds have been reported in Colorado since around Christmas, when the first reports started trickling in on the Western Slope birding electronic mailing list, wsbn.com.
Irruptions are widespread migrations caused by a food shortage in normal wintering areas.
Dick Filby of Carbondale, a regular wsbn.com contributor, recently posted, “There are an unprecedented number of reports of Common Redpolls across our state, with some towns hosting scores, even hundreds (e.g. Fort Collins, Kremmling, Steamboat). In the Front Range at least, these have been accompanied by a handful of Hoary Redpolls, the first ever to be documented in the state.”
The extent of the birds’ southern invasion depends on food supplies. In widespread irruption years, such as this, they can be found as far south as New Mexico, where in 2007 alert birders photographed a Common Redpoll near Taos, that state’s first confirmed sighting.
Common Redpolls have been seen in large flocks around western Colorado this winter, and recently local photographer and birder Jackson Trappett, who made the great images accompanying this story, and his parents saw about 80 or more redpolls in a flock near Mesa, including these shown at a feeder near Mesa.
One uncommon winter visitor also seen at the feeder was a Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker, which more often is found east of the Rocky Mountains and in the South.
Blogger/biologist Meredith Swett Walker recent reported a juvenile American Tree Sparrow, another northerly bird, ground-feeding in her yard on the western edge of Fruita.
But bird feeding is not all rosy (finch or otherwise).
In an article for the journal Alberta Naturalist, Canadian ornithologist Jason Rogers said the negative aspects of feeding wild birds includes “fostering dependency, altering natural distribution, density and migration patterns (and) facilitating the spread of disease.”
Also, Rogers said gathering birds in large numbers at feeders increases the chance of attracting predators, including cats and hawks.
Collins said putting a few static-cling decals or mylar strips on your big windows will reduce bird collisions.
“And if you hang the feeder closer to the window, they might not hit it,” Collins said.
If you’re lucky, the biggest hit will be seeing an unexpected visitor enjoying the bounty in your backyard.