Time to break out the bird feeders

  • From top, a Pine Siskin, American goldfinch and Black-capped chickadee sit on a feeder in Fayston, Vt. AP

  • A cardinal takes flight from a snow-covered bird feeder in Marlborough, Mass. AP file

  • Blue jays eat from a feeder at the home of Nancy Castillo and Lois Geshiwlm in Providence, N.Y. AP file

  • Birds flock to a feeder as snow falls Friday, Jan. 22, 2016, in Nashville, Tenn. A blizzard menacing the Eastern United States started dumping snow in Virginia, Tennessee and other parts of the South on Friday as millions of people in the storm's path prepared for icy roads, possible power outages and other treacherous conditions. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey) Mark Humphrey—AP

Monitor staff
Saturday, November 12, 2016

Since so many Granite Staters live in rural areas, keeping bears out of backyards is an active concern. And bird seed – a tasty, high-protein, high-fat snack for bears – is a great way to bait the animals right to your back porch. That’s why New Hampshire Fish and Game officials recommend keeping bird-feeders inside until the winter, between Dec. 1 and April 1.

So with fall fading and winter just around the corner, the Monitor thought we’d check in with New Hampshire Audubon Society avian conservation biologist Pamela Hunt about the basics of bird-feeding.

What kind of bird feed should I get?

Black-oil sunflower seeds and nyjer seeds (also known as thistle seeds) are pretty universally popular with the kinds of birds the Granite State sees. Suet, too, will attract birds like woodpeckers, chickadees, and nuthatches.

Bird feed will also often feature either corn or millet. Birds will eat both, Hunt said, but it’s the sunflower, nyjer, or suet – which are more expensive – that will actually attract most birds to a feeder in the first place.

What kinds of birds can I expect to see?

New Hampshire bird watchers should expect to see about twenty different types of winter birds fairly commonly, including doves, sparrows, and cardinals. Rarer sights include northern species that don’t usually come so far south – birds like the evening grosbeak, a yellow-bodied bird in the finch family with a stark black-and-white stripe on its wings.

Another northern finch, the common redpoll, tends to make a strong showing in New Hampshire every two years or so, and Hunt cited reports of multiple sightings already this year.

Has climate change impacted the birds Granite Staters can expect to see?

Almost certainly. The evening grosbeak, for example, now most often sighted north of the border, actually use to be extremely common across New Hampshire and New England. Why its numbers have so drastically declined in the area isn’t fully understood, but conversely, the cardinal, which is now considered a traditional winter bird across the state, only use to show up in the southern part of the Granite State.

How strictly should I stick to the Dec. 1 to April 1 schedule for taking my feeder out?

Hunt emphasized that the recommended timeline was a rule of thumb, not a hard-and-fast rule. It’s ultimately a judgment call, she said, but bird watchers should take climate and location into account. Someone living in the heart of downtown Concord might not have much to fear, but someone living in more rural areas should probably take a feeder in early or wait longer to take it out if it’s unseasonably warm or there has been evidence of bear activity in the area.

Some people argue bird feeding interferes with the natural order of things. Should I feed birds at all?

Hunt said concerns that bird-feeding creates a dependency in wild birds isn’t supported by the scientific evidence. But two things can hurt birds, especially when combined with feeders: cats and disease.

Outdoor cats are particularly adept at hunting and killing small birds, and installing a feeder around a home with a cat that ventures outside is a sure-fire way to kill birds.

Because bird-feeders get many birds to congregate in one spot, they can also magnify outbreaks of disease – typically salmonella and conjunctivitis. Both are rare, Hunt said, but they do happen.

Birders should take care to empty, clean, and bleach feeders after warm, damp periods, and should look out for signs of disease in birds visiting feeders. Birds with conjunctivitis will have scabs around their eyes, and dead birds around the property – that hadn’t obviously smacked into a window – are also red flags. 

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)