I don’t know what it’s like where you live, but here in east central Minnesota it has been the most lackluster winter in 33 years, when it comes to seeing new birds at our feeders. We have not had one of the winter finches show up. I’m not sure what’s going on, but it is sort of worrisome, since we have all heard about the drastic decrease in bird populations across this country. Maybe it’s just been such an easy winter up north in Canada that finding food hasn’t been a problem for the Redpolls, Pine Siskins and Purple Finches. And where are the Pine Grosbeaks and the White-winged Crossbills? We have seen one or two American Goldfinch, but they have not stuck around. And it isn’t just at our house. The Sax-Zim Bog, (an area that includes public and private land in northern Minnesota) is one of the best places to find the species that show up in the winter months. In fact people come from all over the country and world just to see some of these special winter visitors. Checking their website, it appears that they too are seeing few of the
Finches or Grosbeaks.
Instead we are inundated with Blue Jays. We regularly count 17 to 18 of the birds in the trees and around the bird feeders. My husband delays his morning delivery of new sunflower bird seed until mid-morning, when the frenzy of blue marauders has lessened and he feels semi-confident that the woodpeckers and chickadees will be able to have a turn at the platform feeder.
Blue Jays belong to the group known as Corvids and as such they are one of the smartest species of bird. Other members of this group that can be seen in Minnesota include Crows, Ravens, Gray Jays and occasionally Black-billed Magpies. In the mountain west there are also Clark’s Nutcrackers.
The Blue Jays and Crows are usually found in flocks that mainly consist of extended family members, while Gray Jays, Ravens and Magpies generally travel in smaller groups. Crows are familiar sights in both town and country. Since the mid-1950s their numbers have been slowly increasing in the Midwest and the East. This is when they began to colonize urban areas. It’s not so much their invading the towns, as the towns taking over the forest and farmlands they traditionally inhabited. Fast food trash and garbage in general, as well as the expanding habit of backyard bird feeding all contributed to this new phenomena.
Populations continued to grow until the West Nile virus hit. It turned out that Corvids were especially susceptible to this disease and there were significant die offs around the country. Central New York lost about 50% of their population in a little over two years. Their numbers have since recovered in that state, however Indiana and Illinois lost more than 75% of their crows and their numbers have not seen the same sort of recovery. The same is true in Ohio.
But if any bird can prove it’s ability to adapt to new and challenging situations, it is the Crows. They, like us, are omnivores and city life creates a lot of opportunities. It also brings them into conflict with the humans who don’t
appreciate their habit of forming large gatherings at dusk as they noisily begin to roost for the night. For the crows this is a time to engage in interpersonal disputes and to scope out the competition. It is also a time to share information – non-verbally. The Crows that appear well-fed will be followed the next day, in hopes of cashing in on whatever bounty their companions have found.
I enjoy observing Crows as they approach our yard and the feeders. They are always on high alert and sometimes it only takes the silhouette of a human in the window and the they lift off, cawing their disappointment as they fly away.
Can you tell I’m trying to convince myself that there are other options for bird watching in these winter months? But there is no hiding the fact that what I really want to see are some small birds with red caps, or yellow edged wings, or wine colored bodies (Redpolls, Pine Siskins, Purple finch). There are still a few weeks left of the winter season, so all hope is not lost. To quote Emily Dickinson, “Hope is the thing with feathers…”
By Kate Crowley