When fall turns blustery and the temperature drops, you can count on seeing birds gather around your feeders. They bounce around like balls of fluff, gleaning seeds other birds have dropped. They may be local residents or birds who have moved south for the winter, but most people call them snowbirds.
Many of the snowbirds arrive locally as early as October and may be seen scratching for seeds in thickets where they blend into the background. Casual observers are more likely to notice them when the year’s first snowfall renders their plumage most visible. At our feeders we always have a lot of juncos. They are easy to recognize in the air. When they take flight, they flash tail feathers framing a dark center.
Snowbirds are mostly tolerant of human activity and are frequent visitors to home bird feeders. They aren’t picky eaters. They prefer sunflower seeds, but will also take cracked corn, millet, sorghum or safflower seeds. Some prefer to hunt for seeds on the ground, so they usually are seen foraging beneath feeders rather than perching on them. This is a fortuitous habit, since it avoids competition with other birds including blue jays, cardinals and other birds who prefer to sit at feeders. It also helps gardeners, since snowbirds clean up weed seeds while foraging for bird seed.
Placing feeders over shrubs or in flower beds where dry plants are allowed to stand throughout the winter creates a perfect snowbird habitat. Snowbirds prefer to scratch for food amid brushy cover, which provides protection from hawks and marauding cats. Discarded Christmas trees also make excellent cover. If your feeder is located on a deck or patio, putting lawn furniture underneath creates the same sort of cover which gives snowbirds a sense of security.
Snowbirds spend their summers raising broods from Michigan to the boreal forests of Labrador. Tens of thousands spend their winter in Missouri and are documented via the annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count. This year it falls between Saturday-Sunday, Dec. 14-Jan. 5, and will mark the 129th count. This winter bird census involves thousands of volunteers across the U.S., Canada and many other countries in the Western Hemisphere. Birds are counted over a 24-hour period between the above dates. The bird census gathers data on winter bird populations to track their long-term trends. Each bird count has a coordinator who assigns portions of a 15-mile diameter count circle to participants who then count all birds seen and heard.
Any experienced birders can become citizen scientists by helping with the bird count. Learn more at audubon.org/conservation/join-christmas-bird-count. Participating in Christmas Bird Counts provides birders an opportunity to see species who only spend winters here.
White, a Stockton resident, has a versatile outdoors background as a participant and journalist. His column appears weekly.