Feeders give a window to winter bird behavior


A bird feeder is a window into the world of wild bird behavior. It can entertain and educate curious birdwatchers for hours.

Begin with an informal experiment to talk to feeder birds. Next time you fill your feeders, make a “pishing” sound to let birds know feeders are being filled.

Do this every day for two weeks, and the birds will soon recognize the dinner bell.

Pishing is easy

Simply exhale air through your pursed lips. The high-pitched sound is a universal bird call.

Birds respond because it may suggest alarm, or perhaps they are simply curious. Alternatively, you can kiss the back of your hand to make a squeaky sound.

In any case, when birds learn to associate pishing with feeders being filled, they respond almost instantly.

When I fill my feeders, chickadees respond to a pish within 10 seconds, and titmice and nuthatches come in shortly thereafter.

Talking to birds in a language they understand is a great way to lure them in for closer observation. It may also draw some strange looks from neighbors.

After a feeder becomes recognized as a reliable source of food, it will be a hub of near constant activity.

Bird behavior

At a covered platform feeder that hangs about 12 feet from my desk, I see many behavioral patterns emerge.

One obvious observation is that as the temperature drops, activity increases.

During a recent mild spell in January, it took birds five days to empty my feeders. As soon as cold winter weather returned, however, the feeder became a hub of constant activity.

Sometimes scores of birds stood shoulder to shoulder as they fed. On such frigid days, the feeders are empty by sunset.

Most birds prefer to space themselves out when conditions are mild. But as the temperature drops, birds tolerate crowding just to stay alive.

The calories in the foods they eat fuel the metabolism that keeps them alive from day to day. When it’s very cold, birds must eat enough each day to get them through long winter nights.


Watch your feeders for 15 or 20 minutes on cold and mild days to see if you can observe a difference in how much time birds spend at feeders.

Certain birds display clear social behavior at feeders. Chickadees forage in small flocks of five to ten individuals.

Though age and gender cannot be determined visually, we know from banding studies that younger birds usually let older males and females eat first.

Titmice, another common feeder bird, form smaller feeder flocks, though it can be difficult to count both titmice and chickadees. They move so quickly it’s hard to estimate the number of birds in a flock.

Juncos show similar social behaviors, though they spend most of their time on the ground rather than at elevated feeders. And flock size can exceed 20 individuals.

Watch as older more dominant juncos chase and even attack subordinate birds.

Cardinals show an exaggerated response to colder temperatures. On mild days, I often won’t see a single one. But when the temperature drops and the snow falls, they flock to feeders.

It’s not unusual to see a dozen or more cardinals, evenly split between males and females, on cold snowy days.


Birds forage in flocks because many eyes are better at finding ephemeral patches of food. And they find safety in numbers.

Though large groups of birds may be conspicuous and easy for predators to locate, flocks have many eyes and members are vigilant.

They detect predators at greater distances and sound alarms before a threat materializes. Sometimes, however, an individual can be distracted and get left behind.

Just a few days ago I watched a downy woodpecker hang frozen on a perch beneath a feeder. It was so focused on eating, it had missed a sharp-shinned hawk that flew onto a nearby perch.

For 12 full minutes, they played a waiting game. The woodpecker never moved a muscle until the hawk flew off.

And within just a few minutes, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, and goldfinches returned to the feeder, hungry but ever vigilant.

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