Bird Study – The Food Question In Winter

Where to secure the food is the big question which confronts every bird when it opens its eyes on the first snowy morning of winter. Not only has the whole aspect of the country been changed, but the old sources of food have passed away. Not a caterpillar is to be found on the dead leaves, and not a winged insect is left to come flying by; hence other food must be looked for in new directions. Emboldened by hunger, the Starlings alight at the kitchen door, and the Juncos, Sparrows, Downy Woodpeckers, and Nuthatches come to feed on the window-sill. Jays and Meadowlarks haunt the manure piles or haystacks in search of fragments of grain. Purple Finches flock to the wahoo elm trees to feed on the buds, and Crossbills attack the pine cones. Even the wary Ruffed Grouse will leave the shelter of the barren woods, and the farmer finds her in the morning sitting among the branches of his apple tree, relieving the twigs of their buds. In every field a multitude of weed stalks and stout grass stems are holding their heads above the snow tightly clasping their store of seeds until members of the Sparrow family shall thrash them out against the frozen crust beneath.

Among those which are forced to become largely vegetarian in winter is the Bluebird. In summer he is passionately fond of grasshoppers, cutworms, and Arctia caterpillars, but now he wanders sadly over the country of his winter range in quest of the few berries to be found in the swamps and along the hedgerows. The Crow is another bird often met in winter walks, for he, too, in many cases spurns the popular movement southward in the fall, and severe indeed must be the weather before he forsakes his former haunts. You will find him feeding along the banks of streams or in the open spots in the fields, or again in the woods pecking rotten stumps or fallen limbs in search of dormant beetles.

Fifty-five species of Warblers inhabit North America. These birds are insectivorous in their feeding habits, which of course also means that they are migratory. A partial exception to the rule is found in the common Myrtle Warbler. Although in winter these birds range south to Panama, many remain as far north as New Jersey, Kansas, and the Ohio Valley. This does not mean that insects are found in these regions in sufficient numbers to supply the larder of the Myrtle Warblers, but it does mean that they find acceptable substitutes for their usual food. Oddly enough, what they depend on is not animal matter in any form, but consists of berries which contain some of the essential food properties of fatty meats. One of the most popular with them is the common bayberry.

Among the sand dunes of the extensive ” Banks” along the North Carolina coast there grows in great profusion a small bushy tree known as the yaupon.

The young leaves of this when dried and steeped make a very acceptable drink, and during the hungry days of the Civil War when the Federal blockade became effective the people of the region used this as a substitute for tea and coffee. The yaupon produces in great abundance a berry that is so highly esteemed by the Myrtle Warblers that they pass the winter in these regions in numbers almost incredible.

When the Food Supply Fails.—It is hard to realize the extent of the havoc wrought among birds by cold, snowy weather. Early in the year 1 895 a long, severe cold spell, accompanied by snow and sleet, almost ex-terminated the Bluebird in the eastern United States. The bodies of no less than twenty-four of these birds were found in the cavity of one tree. It looked as if they had crowded together with the hope of keeping warm. It was not the cold alone which had destroyed the birds: a famine had preceded the cold snap, and the birds, weakened by hunger, were ill prepared to withstand its rigours.

One winter some years ago a prolonged freezing wave swept over our South Atlantic States, and played havoc with the Woodcock in South Carolina. This is what happened : the swamps in the upper reaches of the Pee Dee, the Black, and Waccamaw rivers were frozen solid, and the Woodcock, that in winter abound in this region, were thus driven to the softer grounds farther downstream. The cold continued and the frozen area followed the birds. The Woodcock, unable to drive their long bills into the once-responsive mud, were forced to continue their flight toward the coast in search of open ground where worms could be found. When at length they reached Winyaw Bay, where these rivers converge, they were at the point of exhaustion. Thousands of the emaciated birds swarmed in the streets and gardens of Georgetown. They were too weak to fly, and negroes killed them with sticks and offered baskets of these wasted bodies, now worthless as food, for a few cents a dozen. Several shipments were made to Northern cities by local market men, who hoped to realize something by their industry.

Of the Wild Ducks which remain North in the winter many die because of the freezing of the water in which they must dive or dabble for their food. On the morning of February I I, 1912, Cayuga Lake in western New York State was found to be covered with a solid sheet of ice from end to end. It is a large body of water, having an area of nearly sixty-seven square miles. It rarely freezes over only once in about twenty years, as the records show. The Ducks inhabiting the lake at this time were caught unawares. Many of them moved quickly to more Southern waters, but others tarried, evidently hoping for better times. Subsequently a few air-holes opened and the Ducks gathered about them, but there was little food even here, and numbers starved to death. One observer who went out to the air-holes reported examining the bodies of twenty-eight Canvas-backs and nineteen Scaups in addition to many others such as Redheads and Golden-eyes. His survey was not exhaustive and the Gulls had doubtless removed many bodies from the territory he visited. When the surface of lakes and bays freezes suddenly in the night Ducks are sometimes caught and held fast by the ice adhering to their feathers and legs. In this condition they are utterly unable to escape the attacks of man and beast, and in the latitude of New York captures in this way are now and then reported.

Wild Fowl Destroyed in the Oil Fields.—In the oil fields of the Southwest and old Mexico the surface of many ponds is covered with oil into which unsuspecting flocks of Ducks alight never again to emerge until their dead bodies drift to the shore. It was on November 27, 1912, that the naval tank ship Arethusa steamed into the harbour of Providence, Rhode Island, with a cargo of crude oil. For several days following her bilge pumps sent overboard a continuous stream of water and oil seepage. On December 3d the following news-item appeared in the Providence Daily Bulletin, “The east shore of the lower harbour and upper bay, from Wilkesbarre pier to River-side and below, is strewn with the bodies of dead Wild Ducks, which began to drift ashore yesterday. The wildfowl came into the bay in enormous flocks about the middle of November and have since been seen flying about or feeding in the shallow water, as is usual at this time of year. As no such amount of oil, it is believed, was ever let loose into the bay at one time before, and as Ducks along the shore, dead from poisoning, have never been seen before, it is reasonable to connect the two occurrences.”

Hunting Winter Birds.—Birds are to be found in winter in nearly every neighbourhood, and it is astonishing under what adverse natural conditions one may find them. As I write these lines on a dark February afternoon, here in New York City, I can see through the window a Starling sitting ruffled up on the bare twig of an elm tree. Every minute or two he calls, and as he is looking this way perhaps he is growing impatient for the little girl of the house to give him his daily supply of crumbs. A few minutes ago there was a Downy on the trunk of the same tree, and out over the Harlem River I see a flock of Herring Gulls passing, as their custom is in the late afternoon.

Several years ago Dr. Frank M. Chapman sent out a notice to bird students that he would be pleased to have them make a record of the birds to be seen in their different neighbourhoods on Christmas. Many responded, and he published their reports in his magazine Bird-Lore. This aroused so much interest that bird observers all over the country now have a regular custom of following this practice. In the January-February, 1916, issue of Bird-Lore appears the results of the last census which was taken on December 25, 1915. By examining this one may get a good idea of the birds to be found in various communities at this season. Some of the lists were very large, ninety-three specimens being noted in the one sent by Ludlow Griscom, from St. Marks, Florida. The largest number reported by any of the observers was 221, seen in the neighbourhood of Los Angeles, California. The following are reports from typical sections:

Wolfoille, N. S.-Dec. 25; 10 A. M. to 12.30 P. M. Cloudless; 3 inches of light snow; no wind; temperature 30 degrees. Herring Gull, 2; Black Duck, loo; Canada Ruffed Grouse, 4; Downy Woodpecker, 1; Northern Raven, 1; Crow, 6; Goldfinch, 11 ; Vesper Sparrow, 1 (collected for positive identification); Black-capped Chickadee, 7; Acadian Chickadee, 2; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 5. Total, 11 species, 140 individuals. Dec. 20, a flock of 8 to 10 American Crossbills.—R. W. Tuns.

Tilton, N. H.—Dec. 25; 8.20 A. M. to 12.30 P. M. Cloudy, changing to light rain; a little snow on ground; wind light, south-east; temperature 38 degrees. Blue Jay, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, 1; Chickadee, 6; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 2. Total, 4 species, 10 individuals. Birds seem unusually scarce this Winter.—GEORGE L. PLIMPTON and EDWARD H. PERKINS.

Bridgewater, Mass.—Dec. 25; 8 to to A. M. Cloudy; ground bare; wind southeast, moderate; temperature 27 degrees to 42 degrees. Red-tailed Hawk, 2; Northern Flicker, 3; Blue Jay, 3; American Crow, 8o; Starling, 6; Meadowlark, 2; Goldfinch, 7; Junco, 5; Song Sparrow, 42; Swamp Sparrow, 2; Myrtle Warbler, 5o; Brown Creeper, 2; Chickadee, 5o; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 2. Total, 14 species, 256 individuals.—HORACE A. MCFARLIN.

Fairfield, Conn. (Birdcraft Sanctuary, 10 acres).—Dec. 25, Herring Gull, 4; Red-tailed Hawk, 2; Sparrow Hawk, 1; Hairy Woodpecker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 5; Blue Jay, 4; Crow, 8; Starling, flock of 50; Meadowlark, 2; Purple Finch, 10; Gold-finch, 3; White-throated Sparrow, 4; Tree Sparrow, 15; Junco, 3o; Song Sparrow, 7; Fox Sparrow, 1; Myrtle Warbler, 12; Brown Creeper, 3; White-breasted Nuthatch, 2; Chickadee, 10; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 5; Robin, 2. Total, 22 species, 181 individuals. —FRANK NOVAK, Warden.

New York City (Central Park).—Dec. 25; 9 A. M. to I P. M. Cloudy; ground mostly bare, with some remaining patches of snow; wind southeast, light; temperature 45 degrees to 54 degrees. Herring Gull, 70; Black Duck, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 2; Starling, 24; Junco, 4; Song Sparrow, 2; Cardinal, 2; Chickadee, 5. Total, 8 species, 110 individuals.—MR. and MRS. G. CLYDE FISHER.

Rhinebeck, N. Y.—Dec. 25; 8 A. M. to 1 P. M. Cloudy; deep snow; wind south, light; temperature 40 degrees. American Merganser, 2; Ring-necked Pheasant, 30; Gray Partridge, 5; Marsh Hawk, 1; Barred Owl, 1; Hairy Woodpecker, 4; Downy Woodpecker, 8 (drums and utters long call); yellow-bellied Sap-sucker, i male; Blue Jay, to; Crow, 15; Purple Finch, 15; Goldfinch, 6; Junco, 12; Song Sparrow, I; Tree Sparrow, 13; Brown Creeper, 2; White-breasted Nuthatch, 20; Chickadee, 25 (whistles). Total 18 species, 171 individuals.—MRS. J. F. GOODWELL, TRACY, Dows, and MAUNSELL S. CROSBY.

Hackettstown, N. J.—Dec. 22; 8.30 to 10.45 A. M. and 2.15 to 4.50 P. M. Fair; remains of 16 in. snow, ground partly bare, partly with deep drifts; temperature 20 degrees. Pheasant, 2; Sparrow Hawk, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 4; Blue Jay, 1; Crow, 4; Starling, II; Meadowlark, 13; Goldfinch, 1; Tree Sparrow, 6; Junco, 14; Song Sparrow, 3; Brown Creeper, 2; White-breasted Nuthatch, 2; Chickadee, 11; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 1; Robin, 1; Bluebird, 2. Total, 17 species, 79 individuals.—MARY PIERSON ALLEN.

Doylestown, Pa.—Dec. 25; 10 A. M. to 2.30 P, M. Fair; ground snow-covered; wind southwest; temperature 40 degrees. Red-shouldered Hawk, 1; Sparrow Hawk, 1; Hairy Woodpecker, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 3; Blue Jay, 5; Crow, 7; Starling, to; Meadowlark, 3; Purple Finch, 3; Tree Sparrow, 8; Junco, 42; Song Sparrow, 4; Cardinal, 2; White-breasted Nuthatch, 3; Tufted Titmouse, 5; Black-capped Chickadee, 16; Robin, 1; Bluebird, 2, Total, 18 species, 117 individuals—DOYLESTOWN NATURE CLUB, per Miss ELIZABETH COX.

Lexington, N. C.—Dec. 27; 9.30 A. M. to 4.30 P. M. Fair to hazy; ground bare; wind southeast to south, light; temperature 44 degrees to 50 degrees. Mourning Dove, 1; Turkey Vulture, 21; Sparrow Hawk, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 1; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 2; Northern Flicker, 9; Blue Jay, 12; Crow, 15; Purple Finch, to; Goldfinch, 13; White-throated Sparrow, 50; Chipping Sparrow, 15; Field Sparrow, 3o; Slate-coloured Junco, too; Song Sparrow, 26; Fox Sparrow, 2; Towhee, 4; Cardinal, 20; Mockingbird, 5; Carolina Wren, 12; House Wren, 2; Long-billed Marsh Wren, I; White-breasted Nuthatch, 4; Tufted Titmouse. 4; Carolina Chickadee, 20; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 3; Bluebird, 8. Total, 27 species, 391 individuals.—THEODORE ANDREWS.

Columbia, S. C. (Outskirts).—Dec. 27; 11 A. M. to 1 P. M. Clear; ground bare; wind southwest, light; temperature 47 degrees. Black Vulture, 30; Red-tailed Hawk, 2; Red-headed Wood-pecker, 6; Flicker, 1; Blue Jay, 12; Goldfinch, 7; White-throated Sparrow, 15; Slate-coloured Junco, 35; Song Sparrow, 6; Red-eyed Towhee, 3; Loggerhead Shrike, I; Mockingbird, 3; Carolina Wren, 7; Brown Creeper, I; Carolina Chickadee, 8; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 2; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 8. Total, 17 species, 147 individuals.—BELLE WILLIAMS.

Tampa, Fla.—Dec. 26; 9 A. M. to I2 M. and 2 to 5 P. M. Clear; wind northwest, steady; tide out all day; temperature 40 degrees. Laughing Gull, I; Bonaparte’s Gull, I; Brown Pelican, 9; Lesser Scaup, 75; Ward’s Heron, 2; Little Blue Heron, 5; Killdeer, 15; Mourning Dove, 3; Turkey Vulture, Io; Black Vulture, 4; Marsh Hawk, 1 ; Bald Eagle, 1 ; Kingfisher, 1 ; Red-headed Woodpecker, 1; Florida Blue Jay, 5; Towhee, I; Tree Sparrow, 14; Loggerhead Shrike, 6; Myrtle Warbler, 20; Yellow-throated Warbler, t; Palm Warbler, 60; Prairie Warbler, 1; Mockingbird, 12; House Wren, 2; Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 2; Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, 3. Total, 26 species, about 260 individuals.—MRS. HERBERT R. MILLS.

Rantoul, Ill.—Dec. 25; 11 A. M. to 2 P. M. Cloudy; wind north-west, strong; temperature 22 degrees. Prairie Hen, 40; Mourning Dove, 2; Cooper’s Hawk, 2; Red-tailed Hawk, 1; Red-shouldered Hawk, 1; American Rough-legged Hawk, 5; American Sparrow Hawk, t; Short-eared Owl, 3; Screech Owl, 1; Northern Downy Woodpecker, 5; Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, 2; Northern Flicker, 2; Horned Lark, 60; Prairie Horned Lark, 30; Blue Jay, 15; Bronzed Grackle, 2; Lapland Longspur, 4; Tree Sparrow, 200; Junco, 100; Song Sparrow, 8; Swamp Sparrow, 2; Cardinal, 16; Brown Creeper, 1; White-breasted Nuthatch, Io; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 4; Tufted Titmouse, 3o; Chickadee, 24; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 4. Total, 28 species, 575 individuals.—GEORGE E. EKBLAW and EDDIE L. EKBLAW.

Youngstown, Ohio.—Dec. 25; 8 A. M. to 4 P. M. Rain nearly all day; wind southerly, brisk at times; temperature 46 degrees to 33 degrees; walked about 10 miles. Ruffed Grouse, 2; Barred Owl, 1; Great Horned Owl, 2; Hairy Woodpecker, 6; Downy Woodpecker, 30; Red-bellied Woodpecker, 1; Blue Jay, 21; Gold-finch, 4; Tree Sparrow, 54; Slate-coloured Junco, 4; Song Sparrow, 20; Cardinal, 25; Winter Wren, 1; Brown Creeper, 4; White-breasted Nuthatch, 50; Red-breasted Nuthatch, 2; Tufted Tit-mouse, 25; Chickadee, 133; Golden-crowned Kinglet, 29; Wood Thrush, 1. Total, 20 species, 424 individuals. The Wood Thrush was possibly crippled, but could fly quite well.—GEORGE L. FORDYCE, VOLNEY ROGERS, C. A. LEEDY, and MRS. WILLIS H. WARNER.

Westfield, Wis.—Dec. 22; 8.30 to 10.30 A. M. Cloudy; ground covered by light snow; wind south, light; temperature 30 degrees. Ruffed Grouse, 1; Downy Woodpecker, 2; Blue Jay, 3; Gold-finch, 40; Tree Sparrow, 20; White-breasted Nuthatch, 3; Chickadee, 12. Total, 7 species, 81 individuals.—PATIENCE NESBITT.

Omaha, Neb.—Dec. 25; 10 A. M. to 3 P. M. Clear till noon; 1 inch of snow with bare spots; wind light, south; temperature 20 to 32 degrees. Open woods and parks just west of town, walked north 5 miles. Hairy Woodpecker, 1; Downy Wood-pecker, 7; Blue Jay, 8; Goldfinch, 2; Pine Siskin, 1; Tree Sparrow, 75; Slate-coloured Junco, 20; Cardinal, 2; White-breasted Nut-hatch, 3; Chickadee, 26. Total, to species, 145 individuals.—SOLON R. TOWN E.

Denver, Colo.—Dec. 25; 2.20 to 4 P. M. Partly cloudy; ground with some snow; wind west, strong; temperature 45 degrees to 55 degrees. Ring-necked Pheasant, 11; Marsh Hawk, 1; Orange-shafted Flicker, 9; Magpie, 75; Red-winged Blackbird, 750; Meadowlark, 4; House Finch, 35; Tree Sparrow, 6o; Shufeldt’s Junco, 3; Pink-sided Junco, 1; Gray-headed Junco, 18. Total, 11 species, 967 individuals.—W. H. BERGTOLD.

Escondido, Calif.—Dec. 25; 9 A. M. to 2 P. M. Partly cloudy; temperature 65 degrees. Killdeer, 30; Valley Quail, 100; Mourning Dove, 20; Western Red-tailed Hawk, 1; Desert Sparrow Hawk, 2; Barn Owl, 2; Burrowing Owl, 3; California Screech Owl, 1; Red-shafted Flicker, 3; Black-chinned Hummingbird. 2; Arkansas Kingbird, 9; Say’s Phoebe, 4; Black Phoebe, 2; California Jay, 4; Western Meadowlark, 75; Brewer’s Blackbird, 150; House Finch, 200; Willow Goldfinch, 50; Anthony’s Towhee, 25; Phainopepla, 1; California Shrike, 8; Audubon’s Warbler, 30; Western Mockingbird, io; Pasadena Thrasher, 3; California Bush Tit, 2o; Pallid Wren Tit, 6; Western Robin, 25; Western Bluebird, io. Total, 28 species, 805 individuals.—FRED GALLUP.