Read Caption

Two juvenile bald eagles share a meal of fish on a wintery day.


Birds Don't Like Old Man Winter Anymore, Either

It's killing them. Literally. Robins, wrens, and woodcocks are among those suffering.

Humans in the frigid Northeast aren't the only ones who've had a tough time this winter. Birds are suffering, too.

Eagles, for example, have headed to the coast for food and are fighting over duck dinners. Swans, which typically beg people for food, are more aggressive than usual.

We spoke with Patrick Comins, director of bird conservation for Audubon Connecticut, to see how the polar vortex has affected our feathered friends.

So it sounds like winter is really tough on birds.

The birds are out there; they can't go to their home and get warm. Birds have to deal with the weather. They live out in it. They're subject to the whims of the wind at times, can be blown off course by it. Weather has a huge impact on birds.

View Images

A sparrow, a female cardinal, and a tufted titmouse (top to bottom) wait for their turn on a bird feeder on a snowy day in February 2014.

Even birds that live in a birdhouse?

They've got to get out and forage. They've got to deal with the snow, the cold, the wind, especially with ice. Ice is a huge issue. In terms of an ice storm, that's extremely difficult on birds. It locks up all the food on the trees and on the ground.

Do we know how many birds have died from winter weather?

It's hard to know for sure. The birds that die out there in wild places often aren't found. But we have some clues. For example, back when there was the warm push in January or early February, a lot of birds [in the Southeast] started moving north as they normally would—they time their movements on the lengthening daylight.

American woodcock males that get to the best ground [in the north] first claim it, and they have the best habitat and a good displaying area to do this intricate flight to impress the girls so they can get the most mates. Then there came cold and snowstorms. You have to assume the woodcocks probably perished.

View Images

The winter wren population can be much reduced after a snowy winter.

What other birds are suffering?

Another species we suspect may have had a hard time are robins. There are robins that winter in [the Northeast]. They're quite hardy. You just don't see them as much [because] they're out in the woods eating berries.

In mid-February to early March, robins to the south start moving north. Normally they can find insects and the like, but the robins that have been here all winter have eaten most of the food. Everybody's worried. The robins are looking in trees that don't have fruit. They're concentrated on roadsides, getting hit by cars. It's a very stressful time for these robins.

Don't some birds seek shelter from the storm in nooks and crannies?

When you get snowstorms, the Carolina wren and the winter wren go into rock crevices to spend the night. Come the next morning, if there's a foot or two of snow, they can get stuck in there. In [snowy] winters there are much reduced numbers of winter and Carolina wrens in the breeding system.

View Images

European robins can have trouble finding food after a harsh winter.

Will the birds who've lost numbers be able to recover?

Birds that are impacted the most severely tend to have cyclical or erratic populations anyway. In a lot of cases, good habitat opens up [in spring], so they can have a boom reproductive year after the bust of the winter. I think most of the birds affected by cold snaps are going to bounce back.

Can humans help by feeding the birds?

You can. I view bird feeding as more for us than for the birds. It's more supplemental to them. But a little extra food can help them, particularly if there's a snowstorm. I tend to throw out seed on the ground as a snowstorm's approaching. You can also offer things like mealworms and raisins, currants in your food to benefit the birds that don't eat seed. Of course that can get really expensive.

And there are predictions of snow this Sunday.

We don't know how they do it, but birds can sense changes in the weather. They're going to be more frenzied as the pressure drops. A March snowstorm can be an interesting opportunity to see something unusual come into your feeders—another reason to keep feeders full when snow is coming.