Hoarding helps explain empty feeders in spring

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bird feeder with snow

By mid-January, I’ll begin getting mail asking, “Where are my birds?”

The timing of these queries varies geographically, but by mid-winter, some people somewhere will wonder what happened to their birds. Unusually, mild weather can be responsible.

A January thaw with temperatures well above freezing keeps insects active and most birds well fed.

The only exception to that are finches, which eat seeds almost exclusively regardless of season. Eventually, however, winter will roar, temperatures will plunge, snow will fall, and birds will flock to feeders.

Empty feeders

And soon after that at least some readers will ask how their feeders empty so quickly. Birds can’t possibly be eating all that food every day, can they? Sometimes hungry 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 my 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 seed behind a slab of peeling bark.

Seeds on ground

The first time I observed this I peeled off a piece of bark and a handful of seeds poured onto 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 the 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 mouthfuls of seed 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, then returned to the feeder.

After cramming its mouth full of seeds, it returned to the outhouse and cached the seeds. About 30 minutes later I opened the outhouse door and found a pile of sunflower seeds on the floor beneath the knothole.

Entry hole

What the red-belly failed to understand was that the outhouse lacked an entry point big enough for the woodpecker to get to the seeds — unless it planned to enlarge the knothole. This reminded me 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 whole peanuts. 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. Jays are probably responsible for more missing food than other birds because they visit feeders in flocks.

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.

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Scott Shalaway, who holds a Ph.D. in wildlife ecology from Michigan State University, writes from his home in rural West Virginia. A former faculty member at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma Biological Station, he has been writing a weekly nature column for newspapers and freelancing for magazines since 1986. He can be heard on Birds & Nature from 3-4 p.m. Sunday afternoons on 620 KHB Radio, Pittsburgh, or live online anywhere at www.khbradio.com, or on the Tune-In radio app. Visit his website at www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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