Bird-watching remains lively in the dead of winter

January 05, 1994|By Ann Egerton | Ann Egerton,Contributing Writer

This time of year, a number of birds have migrated south, some all the way to Mexico, Central and South America. But bird enthusiasts say we can still spot between 28 and 35 winged creatures (fewer downtown) if we pay attention and work at enticing them to our own environments.

"All you need to attract birds," explains Cornelia Levering, a bird-watcher for many years, "is clean, fresh bird feed and a few shrubs and trees for cover."

A bird feeder helps, too, be it hanging, standing, attached to a tree, sitting on the ground or a tree stump.

A rather new style of feeder rests flush with the window and allows you to watch the birds without them seeing you. The hanging feeder may be the least desirable in the winter because it swings in the wind, making it difficult for many birds to latch onto.

The food that attracts the most birds, experts agree, is sunflower seed. Mrs. Levering says black, oiled sunflower seeds are the best and adds that some birds like eggshells, while others enjoy peanut butter on cornmeal.

While sunflower seeds will seduce a variety of birds, some people prefer to cultivate the company of just a few feathered friends. Mrs. Levering says the sure-fire lure for the goldfinch is Niger seed.

And, according to "The Backyard Bird Watcher" by George H. Harrison, many birds, such as blue jays and cardinals, like cracked corn. Cracked corn is about half the cost of sunflower seeds, and some people put it out to distract squirrels -- which just gives the aggressive, smart, agile and insatiable rodents something else to eat.

Rob Mardiney, education director at the Irvine Natural Science Center, says about half of the 70 or so birds common to the area in warm weather leave for points south, not just because of the cold but because "they have small insect-eating beaks; the insects are hibernating and the birds simply can't reach their food supply. The birds that stay around, such as the Carolina chickadee, the tufted titmouse, the cardinal and the English sparrow aren't dependent on insects. They eat insect eggs, seeds from plants, berries, invertebrates under leaves."

"Birds that have gone south," he says, "include the Northern [formerly Baltimore] Oriole, most of the warblers, the catbird, house wren and most of the thrushes and hummingbirds, which feed on nectar."

Mr. Mardiney adds that we're likely to see some species now that go north in warm weather. Maryland in January is like the tropics to the Northern junco, the white-throated sparrow and the pine siskin. The black-capped chickadee is likely to migrate here from the north, while the smaller Carolina chickadee has gone south.

Some robins and bluebirds come here in the winter from, say, Pennsylvania, while the ones who are here in the summer move a few states south.

The bluebird, according to Tito McLean, who took up bird-watching in 1957, has made a comeback, thanks to those people who put out bluebird houses. "The aggressive English sparrow and starling were driving the bluebird out, but those houses have given them protection and strengthened their numbers."

Mr. McLean reports that occasionally a hawk may add excitement to the scene. One morning he and his wife saw a sharp-shinned hawk swoop down, snatch a downy woodpecker, kill it and eat it before their eyes. A hawk in the area can spook the songbirds for a while but they'll gradually become attuned to his movements, another long-time observer says.

Safe habitat governs the survival of birds, Mrs. Levering says. Housing and commercial development, both here and in South America, have destroyed a lot of birds' habitats. Mrs. Levering, who participates in a November to April bird-feeder watch for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, adds that the most adaptable birds are the starling, chickadee, crow, tufted titmouse, house finch and cardinal. House finches were introduced here from the Midwest about 20 years ago and have done nicely.

Bird-watching and feeding can be as consuming a hobby as you allow it to be. It is believed that organized bird-watching was created by Wells B. Cook, who in 1880 organized people to report on the movements of birds to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Now, there are from 3 to 50 million bird-watchers (depending on your definition of bird-watcher) around the country. Birdseed is a multimillion dollar business. Many people plant shrubs and trees that attract and/or protect birds and other wildlife.

There are bird-watching trips around the world, and bird photography is a popular activity.

And here, on Saturday, Jan. 8, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., the Irvine Natural Science Center, which is on the campus of St. Timothy's School in Stevenson, will hold its winter bird count. Three staff members will guide you around the woods and fields of the campus to take a census of the winter birds. There is no fee and no previous experience is necessary. Dress warmly and bring a pair of binoculars. Registration deadline is Jan. 7. Call (410) 484-2413.

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