Robert Miller: Why we’re seeing southern birds at winter feeders
All birds are created beautiful. Some are created more beautiful than others.
Which is why, when a red-bellied woodpecker stops at my backyard feeders, I stop as well.
It’s that iridescent red head which shines even on gray days. It’s the black-and-white laddered back, and pale ivory front. My, oh my, I think. My day just got a little better.
This regular customer is also a newbie. Red-bellied woodpeckers didn’t really start showing up in the state until the 1980s. Now, they’re omnipresent.
“The first one on the Woodbury-Roxbury Christmas bird count was in 1978,” said Ken Elkins, director of education at Audubon Connecticut’s Bent of the River nature center in Southbury. “Now we get over 100 a year.”
“It’s amazing,” said Margaret Robbins, owner of the Wild Bird Unlimited store in Brookfield. “They’re very, very popular.”
But red-bellieds aren’t the only ones who are changing the state’s avian landscape. For a variety of reasons — changes in habitat, more bird feeders, a warming climate, sheer opportunism — there are different birds here than there were in the 1950s.
Two obvious examples are northern cardinals and tufted titmice (or titmouses if you’re into the sibilance thing). These once-southern species weren’t Connecticut regulars for much for the first half of the 20th century. But gradually, they expanded their range north.
Elkins said in the 1960s, the Woodbury-Roxbury Christmas count showed 10 black-capped chickadees to every titmouse.
“Now, the ratio is two to one,” he said.
Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, said that in the case of cardinals and titmice, human intervention may have played a part in their thriving. As more people stocked bird feeders, these southern species had food to make it through the winter. Now, they’re year-rounders.
Northern mockingbirds — which surged into the Connecticut in the 1990s and have now leveled off — are another bird that humans helped, although indirectly.
Farmers once planted multiflora rose as a hedge crop. It turned out to be a seriously invasive species. But mockingbirds love multiflora rose hips.
“You could probably plot a map in the state of multiflora rose and the map of mockingbirds would fit onto it,” Elkins said.
There are other species arriving. Black vultures — another southern species — are now established in the state. Carolina wrens are now Connecticut nesters.
At least two species — the yellow-bellied sapsucker and the common raven — are expanding their range from the north.
For the sapsuckers, which are in the woodpecker family and very striking in their appearance and their hammering, it may be an issue of habitat. They’re forest birds and Connecticut is half forest. They’re also our only migratory woodpecker. Rather than braving the exhausting trip south, it’s now warm enough to overwinter here.
“Migration is a risky thing,” Elkins said.
For ravens — which are bigger than crows, more solitary, and which croak rather than caw — it may be simply that the state’s mix of woods, dumpsters and food waste are too enticing to ignore.
“They’re very intelligent birds,” Comins said. “If there’s a food source, they’ll take advantage of it.”
Robbins said a raven used to hang out near her store on busy Federal Road. Her son used to throw it part of his sandwich at lunch time.
“Every day, he’d be there,” she said.
But they are more than mere dumpster divers. They’re part of the country sky as well.
“We hear them here in the late afternoons,” said Cathy Hagadorn, executive director of Connecticut Audubon’s rural Deer Pond nature center in Sherman.
Fish crows — which look like the everyday American crow but have a sneezy nasal caw that sounds like a crow with a head cold — are another bird that’s spreading around the state. They used to be a shoreline bird. Then they followed the rivers inland. Now, they’re just part of the mix, chowing down the food left in mall parking lots.
As the climate warms, Comins said, some familiar feeder birds, like black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches, may shift north. Other southern species, like the Carolina chickadees and blue-gray gnatcatchers, may arrive in their stead.
Hagadorn of Deer Pond Farm said this is another reason for having backyard bird feeders. If people not only watch, but also keep track of what they see — on sites such as eBird and Feeder Watch — ornithologists can better track the grand changes happening around us.
“All the birds are good,” she said.
Contact Robert Miller at email@example.com