Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Fewer birds are using feeders this winter


Q: We decided to try your advice about when to begin feeding birds. Well, we did not get the year-round birds or any birds at all!

We have one feeder with mixed seed, another is sunflower and one with suet. After a few weeks of two bluebirds only, I bought new seed. I talked to my neighbor and he is having a normal year. I guess we will watch the squirrels. (We usually have up to 50 or 100 a day) Do you have any suggestions (pet store!)?

— Bill B., Hinsdale, Mass.

A: I did not follow my own advice, or should I say, Mass Wildlife's advice that is provided because of our large bear population. I began feeding earlier and, even so, I must admit I have far fewer birds this winter than I did the previous.

As I write this, the temperature outside is 3 degrees F. and there is little feeder activity; the feeders were topped off yesterday after being filled two weeks earlier. In a "good" year, with no squirrel poaching, I would fill them about every three to four days.

If your feeders are in the same location as in past years, I am stumped, other than saying local birds do, in fact, begin staking out winter feeding territories in the fall and returning out-of-town species may return to known places where food is readily available. If no food is found, they move on, continuing their search. On the other hand, locals and visitors alike are constantly on the lookout for food sources, and would, or should, have found your feeders by now.

With fresh food, you should at least have common feeder birds, including house finches, house sparrows, juncos (try scattering seed on the snow), chickadees, titmice, goldfinches, perhaps a cardinal or two, and at the least, a downy woodpecker at the suet. With so many gray squirrels, songbirds may be somewhat discouraged.

I would look for a store that deals more with wild birds than pet birds, and the only such place that I know of nearby is in Great Barrington, Mass. If I receive any suggestions I will send you an email and include them in a future column.

Q: Wondering, wondering and everybody has a difference answer! In October, should I clean my two bird houses thoroughly? Or should I leave the "old" straw and twigs in the house all winter?

— George

A: It depends. If you want to entice, and make life a little easier for small rodents (mice), do not bother cleaning until early March. I would not suggest this, however.

If you want to attract bluebirds or tree swallows to the houses, clean the boxes in the fall. And once more in late winter, in the event mice have located and used the bird boxes through the cold months.

The website suggests, "Special precautions for cleaning out a box that housed mice to prevent infection with very rare, but potentially deadly Hanta Virus: Before removing a used mouse nest, use a spray bottle to thoroughly soak the nest and box (to control dust) with a 10-percent bleach solution (water if no bleach is available). After 15 to 20 minutes, while standing upwind/wearing a dust mask, use gloves or a plastic bag to remove the nest, and then sweep and scrape out the box. Wash your hands afterward. Leave the box open for a day to air it out." And remember, wear a dust mask and latex or vinyl gloves.

Q: I have two questions:

1.) What's the difference between house finches and purple finches, and which do I have at my feeders?

2.) If the phoebes that nest on my porch every year build on top of last year's nest, will it be full of parasites? If I clear the old nest away before they arrive in spring, will I be doing them a favor, or would prefer to save some time and labor and use this foundation?

— J.H., Westminster, Vt.

1.) If you see them throughout the year, or usually in flocks, they are probably house finches. The female purple finch is immediately distinguishable (to me, at least) by the bold brown-and-white pattern on the head as opposed to the more plain head of the female house finch. The male purple finch has a rosy overall color with much less streaking on the flanks than the male house finch.

2.) Without human intervention, the phoebe will reuse its nest, building upon its previous one. Many parasites in open nests do not live through the winter. And an even more harmful nest parasite is the cowbird that will lay an egg in an active nest, including a phoebe's. If you decide to remove the nest, wear gloves and dust mask when handling the nest to protect against contamination.

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions