Thom Smith: Bluebirds now a common sight in the winter

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Q. Is it possible for bluebirds to still be around? Two times in the past 10 days or so, two birds, one quite blue, the other a bit duller, but same shape and size, came to the suet as soon as I hung a new block. They munched a little then did not return once all the usual birds came. I was so surprised. We do have bluebird boxes way out back, but I have never seen them at this time of the year or at a feeder. Were my eyes deceiving me?

Marge

A. I cannot speak for your eyes, but I can for the bluebirds that are now a common visitor throughout the entire year. I cannot say with any proof if the birds that you saw are the same as you may have seen last summer. They may have come from farther north. They have become more and more common in recent years, just as their distant cousins the American robins have. Most of the time, both species feed on berries during the colder months. Mine, for instance, will eventually arrive to dine on native winterberry bushes that I transplanted to our yard about six years ago. With more shrubs and decorative trees being planted in parks and yards, the more winter food for these colorful thrushes. Besides shrubs like the species I mentioned, they feed on sumac, dogwood, honeysuckle, juniper, and holly berries among many others.

Environmental factors have, in the past, been against this sweet bird. In the late 1800s and into the 20th century, extremely cold winters and other factors decimated their population.

Since a low point in their numbers due to cold winters, nest competition, lack of nesting trees, and insecticides, they have increased primarily because of our placing out nesting boxes for them, (with competition from English sparrows, house wrens, and, of course, starlings). And less insecticide (DDT) use has played an important role in the bird's recovery. The Eastern bluebird population increased especially between 1966 and 2015 according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Over the years, bluebirds have changed their habits and now are found in pastures, fields, parks and even backyards.

Q. While I am interested in the birds that come to my feeders and yard, it is sometimes a problem identifying them. Do you have any suggestions?

— Bill, Pittsfield

A. It is always best to spend time with others who have already gone through what you are now experiencing. If you don't know any "birders" join the local bird club (hoffmannbirdclub.org), where you will meet and be welcomed by both newcomers and experienced bird observers. It is, by far, the best environment any new birdwatcher can find him/herself in. And if you want to get the best experience for a "new" birder, go along on a couple of field trips to decide if this is for you. I did and continued for a good many years. I met Roger Tory Peterson, who wrote the first birder's bible I ever used. I got my first copy in 1960 and used it for 40 years, when I decided to gift myself the just published "Sibley Guide to Birds" by David Allen Sibley.

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Another way to get kick-started is to get help online. And the best source I have found is allaboutbirds.org/guide, where you will find quick courses on identification by sight, sound, activity, etc. and best of all, a computerized identification of 650 North American birds. It is intuitive and easy to use.

Q. Are we going to have a good winter for northern birds to visit our feeders?

— Paul. Windsor

A. There are indications that there will be an invasion! And there are other indications there won't be because many of the northern species that find refuge and food here have a good supply closer to their breeding range. We will have to keep our feeders well stocked with a variety of favorite seeds.

Some winter invasive favorites:

- Evening grosbeaks and assorted finches favor black-oil sunflower seed. (In the days when we were inundated by grosbeaks, it was easy to go through 100 pounds or more of gray striped sunflower seed in one season. The smaller and more expensive black-oil seed was, to my knowledge, not yet available.

- Pine siskins and redpolls, often traveling together, also feed on black-oil seed, as well as nyger seed. Sometimes, even Pine grosbeaks will favor us with a visit; look for them on berry bushes and trees. And I have seen them, often as not, along the side of a busy road eating road salt.

- Red-breasted nuthatches will accept black-oil seed and suet. It is a delight to have an upside-down suet feeder and watch them and their cousins along with hairy, downy and red-breasted woodpeckers maneuver to land on the feeder belly up.

There are others, but it will be a long winter and I should save a bird or 10 to keep you interested. These will want you to shop for a good brand of mixed seed.


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