Why Backyard Feeders Are Empty

By Scott Shalaway
JUDGING from my mail, the question of the month is, “Where are my birds?” I’ve received dozens of letters and e-mails from readers reporting few birds at their feeders.

Unusually mild weather is responsible. With temperatures well above freezing and as warm as the 60s some days, birds have no problem finding natural foods. Mild temperatures keep insects active and that keeps most birds well fed. The only exception to that are finches, which eat seeds almost exclusively regardless of season.

Eventually winter will roar, temperatures will plunge, snow will fall and birds will flock to feeders. And soon after that at least some readers will wonder how their feeders empty so quickly. Birds can’t possibly be eating all that food every day, can they?

Often squirrels are responsible. And if food vanishes overnight, deer, raccoons, opossums and flying squirrels may be the culprits. But there’s another reason food can disappear from feeders more quickly than birds can possibly eat it. It may be the work of seed hoarders.

I learned firsthand about seed hoarders many years ago. I watched a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches as they repeatedly visited the feeders. About half the time they took a single sunflower seed, flew to a nearby perch and wedged the seed in a crevice in the bark. The nuthatch then hammered the seed with its dagger-like bill and extracted the kernel.

But as often as not, they didn’t eat the seed. Instead they flew to a nearby dead tree and stashed the seeds behind a slab of peeling bark. The first time I observed this I peeled off of a piece of bark and a handful of seeds poured upon the ground. The birds were storing about half the seeds they gathered for later use.

Other birds also cache food. Chickadees and titmice sometimes store food in roosting cavities when weather gets cold and snowy. I’ve occasionally found such caches during mid-winter nest box inspections.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers feed in a manner similar to nuthatches– one seed at a time. But occasionally they appear to take a mouthful of seeds and fly off to a nearby tree cavity.

One day I noticed a red-belly fly directly from a feeder to a knothole on the side of an abandoned outhouse. It inserted its bill into the hole, the returned to the feeder. Then, after cramming its mouth full of seeds, it returned to the outhouse and cached the seeds.

After watching this for several minutes, I opened the outhouse door and found a pile of sunflower seeds on the floor. What the red-belly failed to understand was unless the outhouse door was propped open, it wouldn’t be able to get to the seeds. Unless it planned to enlarge the knothole so it could get into the outhouse.

This reminded of classic food hoarding behavior by Acorn Woodpeckers, which are native to the Southwest. They collect and store acorns, and in one published account, an industrious Acorn Woodpecker made its daily deposits in a knothole on the wall of an abandoned cabin. But those acorns didn’t go to waste; the cabin’s mice surely enjoyed the easy meals.

Like Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Blue Jays also jam their cheeks with large quantities of seed. I’ve often watched them carry off mouthfuls of sunflower seeds, shelled nuts and even peanuts in the shell. Then they bury their stash just like squirrels.

They fly to the edges of the yard and tug at tufts of dried grass. Then they deposit their treasure in the shallow hole. Who knows who finds more of these food caches, the jays or the squirrels? In the long run, however, it probably evens out when jays find nuts buried by squirrels.

Blue Jays are probably responsible for more missing food than other birds because they visit feeders in flocks. A group of a dozen hungry jays can empty a feeder in a hurry. Nuthatches and woodpeckers visit feeders individually or in pairs.

So if food seems to mysteriously disappear from your feeders, don’t assume squirrels or night visitors are responsible. It may simply be seed-hoarding nuthatches, woodpeckers and jays. –Pittsburgh Post Gazette