Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Scarce at feeders this fall, the songbirds have reappeared

By CHERYL KIMBALL January 06. 2018 12:09AM

A junco is a sign that cold weather has arrived in New Hampshire. (Courtesy/Cheryl LeBlanc)

The birds are back. After much discussion throughout the fall about the lack of birds at feeders — an observation represented in emails I got from almost all parts of the state — the birds are, as I write this, busy at my feeders. I hope they are at yours as well.

The explanation most often cited for the relative lack of bird feeder activity has been the incredible crop of natural food — acorns, cones, seed pods and berries — that has been prevalent throughout the fall. Frigid temperatures might be thought of as the reason the birds are back, and certainly they must be able to use the extra and easy food supply and body-warming suet cakes, but the more likely reason is the snow. Much of that natural food is still present, but much of it is just buried at the moment.

Surely industrious squirrels, chipmunks and birds have stored food in tree bark crevices and stone wall cavities and under evergreens that offer snow-free bases for easier re-finding of their caches. But yay for the bird feeders that serve to make life slightly easier during these extreme (even for New Hampshire!) conditions.

There was a lot of talk near the end of 2017 about the value of meditation and mindfulness and other head-clearing activities to help us deal with the current political climate and the contemporary penchant to always be “plugged in.” I feel like if everyone could just sit in front of a window overlooking some bird feeders for some amount of time every day, that would be soothing and mindful activity enough. And as a result, I think we would all be a lot nicer to each other.

Winter bird watching also has, for me, the added factor of making me feel not quite as sorry for myself. Since Christmas Day, the conditions have been just frigid. This I write from my warm home with food as easy to reach as walking 20 steps to my kitchen cupboards and refrigerator. While some number of little songbirds surely expire over a below-zero night, most survive. At 6 a.m. this morning, just before the sun’s rays began to show above the eastern horizon, several little juncos were pecking at seed at the base of the feeders in front of my kitchen picture window.

By the time the earth has turned enough to allow the full sun to appear, the little juncos were accompanied by several more. Then the goldfinches in their bland winter garb arrive. Next are the larger tufted titmice, a pair that sit atop either curved rung of the metal pole holding two feeders like they are ceramic decorations. The juncos argue with each other a bit. All disperse when I head out to the barn.

Juncos have also been hanging out in the barn, something I have not seen in the 24 years we have lived here. Quite a few were there over the weekend, so I spread some black oil sunflower seed on the crusted ice behind the barn. The birds seemed to enjoy that, hanging out with my two domestic ducks who, despite the frigid temperatures, thoroughly enjoy their morning bath in the pool I dutifully fill for them almost every morning. I suspect the songbirds might use it for a water source themselves.

One of the things I really enjoy is seeing the interaction of barn life and wild life. I had picked up a fresh round bale for the horses on New Year’s Eve, rolled it off the truck, and left it halfway to the back of the barn where I planned to roll it into the hay feeder on New Year’s Day. That morning I noticed juncos not only using the round bale as a warm perch in the rising sun but also munching on the hayseeds left behind in its track where I had rolled it off the truck.

After feeding the barn, I come back in and stand in the window with my second cup of coffee enjoying the show. Scrappy blue jays come diving in, clearing the area to have it for themselves. An occasional cardinal — is there anything more striking than a male cardinal in the snow? — flies in for a few seeds. A male downy woodpecker has found the suet cake in the John Deere tractor suet holder. He flies off and then, the pièce de résistance. A male red-bellied woodpecker with his blazing red toupee slams against the suet cake. He hammers away for a few minutes while I watch, not moving a muscle. Then, something I have never seen, the red-bellied flies to the ground and pecks at fallen seed. I am thrilled. I am mesmerized. I am mindful. I am in a meditative state. And then he flies away.

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at

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