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Was it Snowpocalypse for the birds?

So it snowed a little while ago here in Seattle. We tend to make a big deal of it around these parts because snow in the Puget Sound basin, down near sea level, isn’t too common. That said people in Seattle tend overreact to snow. My parents, nervous about me driving to their home from a friend’s, made a comparison of a seven semi pileup on a mountain pass to going across town. We lose power now and then from snow laden branches falling on power lines, but in general, everyone makes it through just fine. While we sit inside our homes with plush blankets, disposable toe warmers, and insulated mugs spilling with spiked hot cocoa, I think mainly about what’s going on outside.

The bird feeder is a major center for my avian education. I remember my first feeder, brimming with sunflower seeds, suspended from a porch beam by a silvery, low gauge chain. The fragility of life was brought to my attention when a lone Pine Siskin with what appeared to be a tumor, collapsed on the deck, as if waiting for the end. I “rescued” it and resolutely watched it die in a box. Yet, when it snowed I almost always realized how tough these birds were. There was no way I could handle being out all day and night in the frigid weather but birds weighing a couple ounces were.

Stuck at home, I settled in to watch my feeders. To some of the more pragmatic of birders, a feeder might seem boring, lacking huge diversity or unique species. To me, recognizing the same individuals, understanding the various behaviors, seeing the pecking orders, and that occasional newcomer – these are essential parts of my appreciation of living creatures. Normally there’s a peak in bird attendance, essentially centered around dawn and to a lesser degree dusk. Many days I am either out of the house before light or I am catching up on sleep, missing out on the tidal flux of bird life in the yard. Thus it’s a luxury to cozy up by a window and be still.

Activity in the cold, snow or otherwise, is necessarily high. High metabolisms work hard in cold weather and even the hardy species need an almost constant stream of calories. For a photographer and a thoughtful observer, this means many more opportunities for comprehension. So, instead of being cozy inside, I was dressed to endure the weather, crouching, laying or standing as the snow settled on my shoulders and my camera.

Possibly a bit cruelly, I was taking advantage of their desperate hunger. They had to be at the feeder or finding food elsewhere. By standing nearby, I was forcing them to get over my presence, my slow, calculated movements and possibly altering their behavior enough that I wasn’t going to learn much. The Chestnut-backed Chickadees and the Red-breasted Nuthatches were vocal in their annoyance, but then again, they are nearby and lively when I fill the feeders as well. However, not until two days of posing with my camera did the sparrows come back, albeit cautiously. Fox Sparrows and Spotted Towhees would creep in and scratch away when I was absolutely still. Did I influence the survival of these birds?  Probably not.

There are some that attempt to paint feeding birds as an ethical issue. Suggesting that people shouldn’t have bird feeders because they encourage dependency or that feeding hummingbirds sugar water is somehow like supplying them with junkfood (it’s processed sugar, I’ll give them that). Maybe a few birds are killed at the feeder, either because the neighbor’s cat is outside (a far larger issue) or maybe because they strike your window, being in close proximity to your home. For the most part I dismiss worries about feeding birds. Paramount is that the educational value, the opportunities for appreciation far outweigh the potential ills. Besides, absolutely nothing is lossless. I’d wager that driving your car to go birding or hiking kills more birds than having a bird feeder does. Hummingbirds are getting essentially the same sugar they’d get from a flower and they don’t sit around and starve when you forget to fill your feeder. (Hummingbirds are a special winter issue in the Pacific Northwest because our Anna’s Hummingbirds are resident, though only recently becoming so. People feel rather possessive of their survival because we likely influenced their residency). I have no concrete proof but I’m almost certain that in the vast majority of cases, if a bird isn’t finding food at your feeder, they leave.

My favorite thing about living in proximity to mountains is that we are witness to not only latitudinal migrants but those that are altitudinal. Birds move around for all sorts of reasons, some are seasonal and some temporary. Here in Seattle, when it snows in the lowlands, it’s almost always dumping in the foothills and above. There’s a whole cohort of birds that if they had their way, would stay in the more forested and mountainous regions. So, when it snows hard, new birds show up.

Variety is the spice of life right? I’m not nearly so absolutist to believe that completely, especially in respect to the natural world. However when I saw that flash of yellow dip to my suet feeder, I was nothing but thrilled by the surprise. Our first Townsend’s Warbler had come calling.

The warbler was there for about a week. Along with the two Varied Thrushes eating seeds and suet bits on the ground (this was the first time I’d seen them do this anywhere), we had a little more color gracing the white expanse. More siskins and goldfinches dropped in from high above than normal. Yet, I was still more enamored with the Townsend’s than anything else.

Most Townsend’s Warblers head further south for California and Mexico come winter. A few decide they can stick it out in the lowlands. They join a mixed flock of chickadees, nuthatches, creepers, and kinglets. Or they find a suet feeder to get them through our generally mild winters before heading for the hills again to breed.

Standing out in the snow, snapping shot after shot of this flirtatious warbler and the more common patrons, I was struck by a number of questions. Where did the less frequent birds go when they left? They were all gone after a week. I surmised that the snow had pushed them out of their normal set of behaviors and to our yard desperate for food. Did the Varied Thrushes head back to the foothills, the forest, or were they still around, just not at our feeders? Was the Townsend’s Warbler just spending time foraging in its normal domain, higher in the conifers? There are large Douglas Firs all about my neighborhood, habitat all unto themselves and quite easily hosting a lone warbler. I hear Golden-crowned Kinglets and Brown Creepers high in the trees nearby and yet I almost never see them in the yard. (EDIT: today, while talking to my boss on the phone, I watched a Golden-crowned Kinglet bathing in a bird bath outside, brilliant crown erect like a matador’s flag).

What always sticks is that these temperate birds aren’t bowled over by the infrequent bouts of cold or snowy weather. They know how to survive all the same. Instinctual behaviors are fascinating and sometimes inexplicable. Does a Dark-eyed Junco from the Rocky Mountains know how to survive snow better than one living in or around Puget Sound? I don’t know and I haven’t found an answer in the literature. Somehow I doubt it.

1 Comment so far

  1. A very sober, knowledgable piece. Nice to see the nonsense about “the ethics” of feeding birds so sensibly challenged. A stunning shot of a Townsend’s Warbler! They are always around in small numbers in our winter, more obvious perhaps(as Brendan points out) during cold times when they descend from the conífer topa to slum with us. The Varied Thrushes are another story, though. They must be lurking just beyond our reach until several days of cold force them to stoop to seeds. I saw this first decades ago on the chilly bricks of The Evergreen State College’s Ded Square. We in the Puget Trough are reduced to whining when winter makes one of it’s rare visits here; nature does what it has always done, amazing us.

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