As I stepped out the back door, I was greeted by the haughty “cheep, cheep” paean of a robin across the lawn. A couple of other robins were hopping and searching the grass and ignoring the singer. Several Juncos were leaping from branch to branch in the hawthorne with their “chip, chip, chip” happy sounds adding to the ambiance of the scene. A Varied thrush was scratching leaves under a bush. What was wrong with this picture? The date was January 7. I hadn’t expected robins. Over the following couple of weeks I observed numerous other species of birds that I didn’t expect to see in the middle of winter. On January 27 I spotted a redwing blackbird at Galloway Marsh, my attention resulting from the blackbird’s characteristic trill from the top of a leaf-less tree. Its springtime song. Normally I don’t see them until the end of March or early April. The following week I heard the cooing of the Asian Collared Dove; which I hadn’t heard since about September. Now I hear it every day. Don’t all these birds migrate south in the middle of October? What were they doing here in the middle of winter?
My amazement continued through all of February. In spite of minus 6 degree temperatures, 3 days of snow and many more days of lingering snow, all these birds, and many more have been hanging around. Some of these birds are often observed on the shoulder times for migrations. Birds like Stellar Jays, Varied thrushes, Juncos, chickadees, Rufous-sided towhees, starlings, doves, House sparrows, Flickers and robins, even one specie of hummingbird, all appear to be wintering in our area. At one point I wondered whether our bird feeders merely kept a core number of birds around; but no, I saw similar groups and number of birds hanging around the trails, along the marsh, and also in the nearby forest. Birds happily singing, and apparently not affected by snow or rain or negative temperatures.
The more I watch, the more the bird behavior seems out of place, or at least, out of season. And more questions come to mind. Do these birds usually winter here, but I don’t notice? Where have the birds gone when we don’t see them? Have they not migrated? When the weather is so bad, as it has been over that recent few weeks, where do the birds find food? Why are they hanging around? Are these birds merely staking out their territories early, for whatever advantage that gives them?
I have been scattering bird seed under the trees where there is no snow. And keeping the birdfeeder well stocked. Sometimes I wonder whether using bird feeders is in the best interest of birds. After all, there are hundreds of birds out there that appear to be doing just fine without it. Am I just feeding the birds to keep them near, where I can see and hear them? A person might question whether the commercial bird feed is beneficial to the birds because the seeds don’t resemble any of the wild foods they have available around here.
I’ve come to the conclusion that these birds are indeed over-wintering here. We have had 3 years of mild winters before this year, and the birds that are hanging around must be really tough to handle the inclement weather, the sparse food supply, and even the harsh conditions when snow covers everything. Some of the birds have learned to take shelter overnight in our barns.
And maybe the birds are just telling us the weather hasn’t been so bad, either!