COLUMN: Snow depths and bird sightings are related
As it retreats into history, this winter will be remembered as one that rushed onto the atmospheric stage on a cold north wind, lost some of its bluster, and then walloped the East Coast before exiting.
If you’re one of the thousands of people who feeds birds during winter, the past few months have been uneventful if not downright boring.
‘Where are all the birds?’
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me that I could probably afford a box seat at PNC Park.
I don’t have the box seat or the answer, but maybe the latest results from the Great Backyard Bird Count provide a clue to the latter.
Disregarding last week’s storm, blame it on ‘low snow.’
Along with counting birds, participants in this year’s bird count were also asked to provide information about snow depths from the areas where they made their observations.
According to Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology, certain species reflect general bird populations. For example, this year less snow brought an abundance of American robin sightings.
Cornell also noted that sightings of Carolina wrens also increase when there is less snow on the ground.
Birds are opportunistic. When there’s ‘low snow,’ birds like robins and wrens remain in more northerly locations. More important to bird feeder watchers is that fewer birds visit feeders and those that do visit don’t come as often.
That seems to be what happened this year. At least ornithologists think that’s the case.
There is some advantage for birds that over-winter farther north. Cornell says those birds are able to return to their breeding grounds earlier and this allows them to select the most optimal breeding territories, which means they have a better chance of successfully fledging young.
So, perhaps there’s some good news in the feeder doldrums.
At any rate, here are Pennsylvania’s Top 10 birds by numbers spotted as reported by participants in the Great Backyard Bird Count: Canada goose 25,770, common grackle 8,207, European starling 7,883, dark-eyed junco 6,074, house finch 5,871, American crow 5,858, mourning dove 5,461, American goldfinch 4,545, house sparrow 4,239 and ring-billed gull 3,328.
Some of our more common feeder birds also ranked high: northern cardinal 3,109, black-capped chickadee 3,083, tufted titmouse 2,303, American robin 2,121, blue jay 1,916 and white-throated sparrow 1,799.
And if you thought evening grosbeaks pulled a disappearing act this winter, you were correct. Out of 105 species reported during the GBBC, not one evening grosbeak was sighted.
For those interested, here’s the Top 10 List of the most numerous birds spotted nationally: Canada goose 152,454, American crow 133,208, European starling 131,333, house sparrow 112,854, American goldfinch 112,173, dark-eyed junco 96,799, mourning dove 92,825, American robin 80,292, house finch 79,684 and red-winged blackbird 77,922.
Not surprisingly, states with warm climates did best. Texas reported the most species, 225, followed by California with 197 and Florida with 178.
Pennsylvania didn’t make the Top 10, which shows that those folks who head south for the winter are only doing what birds have been doing for millennia.
A day before the big East Coast snowstorm, I was on a morning walk and found myself surrounded by birds.
The first ones I noticed were robins. I estimated there were 30 to 40 robins working a spring seep, industriously digging through leaves and picking at the mud.
We don’t give robins much notice during the summer months, but they grab our attention now. These birds were beautifully colored, their backs slate gray to black, their breasts orange, and their bills as golden as dried corn.
Our front yard literally quivered with cedar waxwings. Most of them worked the multiflora rose, while others discovered some decaying apples still attached to branches and got busy.
Waxwings are naturally gregarious and curious. When one bird stops to investigate something, another will quickly join it, and often that number increases until there are a half dozen or more on one branch or gathered about a single point on the ground.
While I watched the waxwings, a male cardinal called from atop our Norway spruce, a tufted titmouse joined in from the maple, and blue jays screamed from the turkey feeder.
Then, I heard them coming up the Driftwood Branch, their dog-like calls drifting over the barren ridges: A great flock of geese wedged their way across the sky in a northwesterly direction.
Looking back on it now, I think all the birds sensed the snowstorm’s progress – some were getting out of its way, while others were busy feeding the way deer and turkeys do before bad weather moves in.
Exactly 24 hours after the morning’s frantic bird activity, the snow began. The waxwings and robins had disappeared. Except for an occasional crow call, the only sound outside was the hiss of snow through the red pines.
Spring, I was reminded, hadn’t been called to center stage yet.
Dave Drakula is an outdoors writer based in Emporium, Cameron County.