Bird activity at the feeders sure has slowed down over the last week or so. No change in the food or the location of the feeders, and no significant change in the weather. So what is it? Why do birds stop coming to your feeders?
1) Is the food still fresh? Sorry folks - birdfood doesn't stay fresh forever. All seed dries out and niger seed is especially prone to drying out. It is a very small, but very high fat seed. Once niger seed dries out, it loses some of its fat content and finches will just turn their beaks to it.
Seed shells should be shiny and dry. If its been sitting in the feeders for months, subject to air, heat, and humidity, chances are it has lost some of its nutritional value and is less desireable to the birds, especially if they can find those nutrients elsewhere.
Suet or suet dough should be tossed out in the garbage if it is moldy. Seed cylinders or blocks that are mushy should be tossed. Nectar should be changed regularly and immediately tossed if moldy or cloudy.
Remember, especially during the summer, there are lots of natural food sources out there - if you're offering dried out or moldy food, why would a bird chose it over a juicy bug or a berry eaten fresh off a tree?
2) Are the feeders clean? Birds don't like to eat out of dirty, moldy feeders anymore than you'd eat off a crusty, moldy plate. Bacteria can develop in feeders so an occasional cleaning with a mild bleach solution (1 part bleach to 10 parts water) will kill the bacteria. Make sure to rinse the feeder well and let it air dry in the sun if possible.
Every now and then a feeder comes in for repair that is crusted hard with seed residue, mold, seed sprouts, bird poop, even live bugs. This is frankly disgusting. You're not helping the birds - and may be HARMING them - by offering them a bacteria-laden birdfeeder. Part of the Zen message on this blog is one of Responsibility, that birdfeeding comes with responsibilities to the birds and that if you're unwilling to accept the responsibilities, DON'T FEED THE BIRDS.
Bottom line: clean your feeders multiple times throughout the year, every 2 months if you can. Have an extra feeder or two so you can take a feeder down to clean and put another in its place right away. If you won't commit to cleaning your feeders, do the birds a real favor, don't feed them.
3) Natural food sources are plentiful. At many times during the year, activity at feeders can decline as natural food sources become widely available. Birds don't rely on your feeders to survive, though they certainly provide an easy source of food.
Birds eat insects, insect eggs, seeds, nuts, buds, berries and fruit, worms, and more. When these are plentiful and easy to find, most birds will prefer them.
Right now I can look up at the tops of the white pines across the road. It is laden with pine cones full of seeds. Acorns are plentiful. Trees are full of ripe fruits and berries. Crawling and flying insects and bugs of all types are everywhere. When the entire habitat is a bird's buffet table, your yard is just one of the many dishes to choose from.
4) Is there a new predator in the area? Is a new cat showing up in your yard? Just yesterday I looked outside and my eyes met the yellow eyes of a cat. Long legged, fully black, slim and young, it was friendly and obviously acclimated to people. But a cat - any cat - will prey on birds when left outside.
I am a cat lover but please keep your cat indoors. They'll live longer (like my cat that lived to age 23) and healthier. And you'll have more birds at your feeder. If it is your neighbor's cat, talk to your neighbor about it. Don't take it out on the cat - it's not his fault, he's just being the predator he is.
Another visiting predator might be a Sharp-shinned or Cooper's Hawk. These accipiters are bird-eating birds. It is always hard to lose a bird to a hawk strike, but by bringing birds in close to us by providing feeders, we are inviting nature AND ITS FULL CIRCLE OF LIFE into our yard. Hawks taking smaller birds is part of that circle of life - we have just become witness to it.
5) Changes happen. This is nature we're talking about. Another message of this blog is that of Acceptance, that "Nature happens. We cannot MAKE natural things happen (or NOT happen). We can create habitats to encourage natural things to happen around us, but there are no guarantees."
Birds move on to other areas. Family groups break up. They migrate. They die. They find new food sources. They establish new territory. They have wings.
All we can do is create a habitat that is inviting to the birds. One that is safe and clean, that provides the things they need - food, water, shelter, a place to raise young - and if we are lucky, they grace our yard with their presence.
Use this slow time to clean all your feeders, buy some fresh birdfood, and then fill your feeders only partway until the activity picks up again. And enjoy nature for ALL it offers - the highs AND the lows.