December Feeder Survey Results

BIRD COLUMN For December 28, 2003

By Benjamin P. Burtt

What birds were visiting feeders in December? That is, are some birds scarce this year? Which birds from Canada have moved into our area this winter? You can compare your sightings with what others are seeing by inspecting the results of the feeder survey that was taken during the first week of December. When numbers of birds are mentioned below, they are the number of birds for every 100 reports..

Skipping geese, starlings, gulls and crows, the most abundant bird right at the feeders was the goldfinch with 1,007. This was also the highest count for that species in the 45 years this survey has been taken. In the past on the average, people had about 5 at their feeder, but this year there were about 12. Some had more and some had less. Sharon Crane of Smyrna estimated that there were about 200 in her yard at one time! Ken Zoller had 50 at West Winfield.

Eighty-two percent of the feeders had goldfinches.

In the winter, the male goldfinch closely resembles the female. To tell them apart, note the arrows in Roger Tory Peterson’s painting of the winter male. One arrow points to the small white shoulder patch and the other directs your attention to the white rump. The winter female has a buff rump and no shoulder patch. The painting is from the “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America,” fifth edition. ( Courtesy of the Houghton Mifflin Co.)

In the list of birds by number, after the goldfinch came the house sparrow with 751, dark-eyed junco 597. Other relatively abundant birds were house finch, chickadee, blue jay, tree sparrow and cardinal.

There were a number of other birds that were reported in above average numbers for their species. The number of red-bellied woodpeckers was higher than it usually is in December. The same was true for the junco.

Nuthatches were more numerous than they were last year. The numbers continue to go up and down in alternate years. This includes both the red-breasted and the white-breasted. Last year they were down and this year both are up.

Tree sparrows breed far north beyond the limit of the trees where there is brush and weeds. In the winter they come south to spend the winter from the northern border of the United States south to Tennessee. Over the years, the feeder survey has shown that while some come in November, the bulk of them arrive in early December. They were right on schedule this year.
There are a number of northern finches that sometimes migrate south into New York for the winter months. These include evening and pine grosbeaks, crossbills, redpolls and pine siskins. This time there were two reports of siskins, one for redpoll and four reports of evening grosbeaks. While this is an increase over last year, it does not suggest a big migration this winter.


The shortest list this time came from Norma Griffin's 3rd grade class at the New Haven Elementary School. They reported 18 mourning doves, 7 goldfinches and 2 blue jays.
Listing 5 species were Robert and Barbara Domachowski of Clay. There were 6 on Susan Cummins list from Mcgraw. In Lansing, Kellie Stiadle had 7. Tallying 8 species were Ted Williams of Fabius and Pete and Kathy DiPino of Parish.

The typical feeder had 14 species so half of the people had less than 14 and half had more than 14. Who had the longest lists?

Linda Quackenbush of Waterloo has a yard that is very attractive to birds and she listed 30 species. Terry and Wanda Wood of Jamesville tallied 23. Reporting 22 species were Lawrence Abrahamson of Marcellus and Steve and Dorothy Hanzlik of Whitney Point.

Bob Asanoma of Liverpool and Steve Swensen of Baldwinsville had 21. There were 20 on Ken Zollers list from West Winfield. Tallying 19 were David Pardee of Brewerton and John and Elizabeth Wallace of Baldwinsville.

Listing 18 species were Paul Radway of Pompey, Clara Barrett in Clinton, William and Marilyn Fais of New Woodstock and Jim and Doris Wagner of Fayetteville.

Four people reported chipping sparrows, but did not tell how they were identified. As I have written before, the chipping sparrow does not have a red cap in the winter. The top of its head is brown with some black stripes. It normally leaves New York State by mid November.

Many winter reports turn out to be tree sparrows in which the breast spot was not obvious.

The List
Here is a list of all species reported. The first figure for a species, is the total number of them spotted on 100 reports and the second figure, the one enclosed in parentheses, is the number of reports that list the species.

If you divide the number of birds by the number of reports that listed the species, you get the average number visiting a feeder. For the chickadee this is 483 divided by 96 reports. So on the average, people have about 5 chickadees at their feeder. You can compare this to the number visiting your feeder.

Loon 12 (1); snow goose 335 (2); Canada goose 6,238 (45).
Ducks: black 5 (1); mallard 51 (5); turkey vulture 1 (1).
Hawks: northern harrier 1 (1); sharp-shinned 9 (9); Cooper's 7 (7); red-tailed 30 (26); rough-legged 2 (2); kestrel 1 (1).

Pheasant 2 (2); ruffed grouse 2 (1); turkey 137 (9).
Gulls: ring-billed 14 (6); herring 8 (2); rock dove 269 (19); mourning dove 829 (86); horned owl 2.
Woodpeckers: red-bellied 54 (49); sapsucker 1 (1); downy 189 (88); hairy 74 (45); flicker 4 (4); pileated 3 (3).

Blue jay 284 (82); crow 851 (81); raven 1 (1); chickadee 483 (96); titmouse 103 (44); red-breasted nuthatch 57(41); white-breasted nuthatch 123 (75); brown creeper 2 (2); Carolina wren 2 (2); golden-crowned kinglet 3(1).

Bluebird 4 (1); robin 32 (4); mockingbird 4 (3); cedar waxwing 5(1); northern shrike 4 (4); starling 1,143 (44); cardinal 214 (77).

Sparrows: tree 228 (50); chipping 7 (3); song 11 {5}; white-throated 86 (25); white-crowned 7 (5); junco 597 (95).

Red-winged blackbird 21 (5); rusty blackbird 4 (2); grackle 212 (7); cowbird 49 (7).
Purple finch 21 (8); house finch 517 (70); redpoll 1 (1); siskin 2 (2); goldfinch 1,007 (82); evening grosbeak 20 (4); house sparrow 751 (48).


The January Feeder Survey starts next Sunday January 4 and continues all through that week.
If you have not participated before, your report is welcome. Anyone in upstate New York State is welcome to participate. Years ago, our Sunday newspaper circulated all through Northern New York up to the St. Lawrence River and through the Adirondacks. I hope those former readers will join me once again now that this column is available on line.

For each species, report the largest number you see at any one time during the seven days. To read the complete instructions, go to the top of this page, click on LIBRARY on the left and then choose "Feeder Survey Directions."

At the end of the week, put your list on a postcard or in a letter or in an email and send it to the appropriate address on the home page.

Every list is important and short ones are just as important as long ones. Lists range from 3 to 30 species and the typical report has 14 species.

This is a project to try to measure how the numbers of each species change over time at feeders in Central New York. It does not matter how many species are attracted to your feeder, for ALL feeders should be counted.

To get in touch with Benjamin P. BurttVia Mail: Write to B.Burtt, Stars Magazine, P.O. Box 4915, Syracuse,, NY 13221.

Via E-mail: Send to Be sure to put “For B.Burtt” in the subject line.

Why starlings and grackles flock together

BIRD COLUMN FOR December 14, 2003

By Benjamin P. Burtt

We will start this column with a question from a reader about the flocking of starlings and grackles. Then we will cover some of the reasons people hate starlings and then some of the useful, interesting and beneficial things about this bird.

Question : Dear Ben:

I saw a large flock of grackles) heading directly east on August 10. Were they starting their fall migration?

I also saw large flocks of starlings in August. Does that early migration mean that we will have a cold winter? --B.R. by email.

CAPTION: Starlings travel about in flocks and hundreds may show up in our backyard as these did at David Ferros home in Auburn. Is flocking of benefit to birds? With many birds in a flock, it is more likely that danger will be spotted and that food will be found. Both of these are of benefit to the species. ( Photo courtesy of David Ferro.)

Dear B.R.: As for the flocks of grackles moving in a given direction in early August, that was not migration. Grackles never start their migration until late October.

Each species migrates at the same time every year to within a week. The timing is governed by their hormones which in turn are stimulated by the shortening of the daylight hours in the fall. The date they start to migrate is not due to a lack of food, nor to some sense that the winter will be severe. It depends on the sun and that does not change.

It is quite normal for starlings and grackles to gather into flocks after the nesting season is over. Each species gathers into its own flock to forage for food and especially to roost together with their own kind at night.

Usually they choose a certain patch of woods. Sometimes starlings roost on buildings. In the 1960s, thousands made a terrible mess each night in down town Syracuse.

Both species start towards their roost at a time that allows them to reach the spot before dark.
In your case, the grackle roost was located east of your home and perhaps 10 miles away. People who live east of that roost would observe the birds flying west in the late afternoon. Those living south of the roost would see grackles flying north.

The History of the starling in the United States

As for the starling, we have them all through the year. They do migrate in a south westerly direction, but others move in from the north so we do not notice any change.

Among certain birds, this habit of roosting or traveling about in flocks is common. In a flock there are more eyes to watch for danger or to find food.

Starlings are birds that are native to Europe and there were none in this country when the Europeans first came here. Now, there is one starling for every U.S. citizen.

This bird was brought here for what might be called cultural reasons. In March 1890, 60 starlings were released in New York City's Central Park by a group who planned to introduce all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare. More were released the next year, and the birds bred and increased their population.

They appeared in Connecticut and New Jersey in 1904, reached Pennsylvania in 1908 and crossed the Allegheny Mountains in 1916. They were in Ohio in 1924, and eventually reached the West Coast by 1942.

Problems with starlings

Wherever they went, they took over the nesting holes that normally would be used by such birds as flickers, great crested flycatchers and bluebirds. Being very aggressive, starlings drove away the other species. The native birds we prefer were not able to nest successfully.

Most people look on them as a nuisance for when they roost together in large numbers, their droppings contaminate the surroundings.

Two redeeming features of starlings

First, they are great eaters of insects and grubs. Secondly and less known is their ability to sing and imitate the songs of other birds and even human speech.

Generally, when we observe a group of starlings sitting in a tree, all we hear are squeaks, chatters, creaking rattles, chirps and wheezy notes, none of which are pleasant to the ear.
Now and then, we may hear some long and drawn-out cheerful whistles which are almost human-like and easily imitated. Young starlings have harsh, rasping, insistent calls as they request the adults to bring them food.

The birds mimicking ability was studied for 10 years by Dr. Meredith West, and Dr. Andrew King at Indiana University. The starling can imitate cats meowing, roosters crowing, babies crying, water running, horns honking, doors squeaking and even hammers hammering.
They can also imitate human sounds, including words and whistled versions of songs.

According to Dr. West, not only do starlings mimic sounds, but they can also string together various sounds into what she describes as "song soliloquies", that is as if it was singing to itself. Some of these included human speech interwoven among others sounds.

The birds can also re-create strings of connected events. They have, for example, imitated an alarm clock ringing, followed by imitations of clinking dishes and of people talking. Another one mimicked the barking of a dog, followed by the sound of a door opening and closing, followed by a voice saying, "Hello!"

Dr. West believes that starlings give back sounds from their environment, perhaps as a means of testing or probing the reactions of people or other creatures around them.

Sometimes their utterances are comical. She cited one case in which a starling exclaimed, "I have a question," as its claws were being clipped. Another got tangled in a Venetian blind cord and started shrieking, "basic research" over and over.

Yet another would utter a sniffling sound and say "hi." This apparently was the mannerism of the person who took care of the bird and had an allergy which caused them to sniff frequently.
Dr. West said that all of the starlings she and Dr. King have studied show an interest in music or whistling. She said they often produce rambling whistled tunes made up of songs that have previously been whistled or sung to them, "intermingled with whistles of unknown origin and other sounds."

One starling would start whistling "rock a bye baby," then switch to "The William Tell Overture? and go back and forth between the two.

People in the 18th century knew about the singing and mimicking ability of starlings. They trained them as musical birds and kept them as pets.

Mozart’s Pet starling

The Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had an interesting experience with a pet starling. He kept a diary of the money he spent, and on May 27, 1784, he made an entry that he had purchased a pet starling. He also wrote that the bird whistled 17 notes of a musical score that he had completed about six weeks earlier, even though the work had not yet been played in public.

The 17 notes appear in the final movement of his Piano Concerto in G Major. This startled and worried Mozart, because he had just sent a copy of his work to his father as insurance against someone stealing it and claiming it for their own. In those days, when there where no copyright laws, others would try to steal the works of famous composers.

A day after he sent the concerto to his father, he walked into a pet store and heard a starling whistling notes from his new concertos final movement! So he did what any new creator would do, - he bought the bird.

Drs. West and King suggest that Mozart had visited that pet shop and other pet shops earlier. Being the inveterate whistler that he was, he probably gave the notes away long before the concerto was played publicly.

Early in this century, North American Ornithologists wrote about the mimicking ability of starlings as the bird began to populate this country. The bird so often imitated the notes of the wood pewee that some New England ornithologists thought that it was the natural call of the starling.

But it was later learned that in England the note was not used by the starling. There are no pewees there. As the cowbird became more abundant here, its calls were often imitated by the starling.

Francis H. Allen, writing early in the about 1910, suggested that the starlings learned many of their imitations from other starlings. He observed trends in their singing. For several years, they imitated pewees and then they shifted to cowbirds.

More than 50 species of birds have been listed as imitated by the starling.

Not all starlings are imitators, and some never seem to indulge in the habit. When you next encounter a flock of starlings, stop to listen. I doubt if you will hear the Piano Concerto in G Major, but you may hear some interesting imitations.

Coming December 28: The birds that were visiting feeders in early December and the results of the December Feeder Survey.

To get in touch with Benjamin P. BurttVia Mail: Write to B.Burtt, Stars Magazine, P.O. Box 4915, Syracuse,, NY 13221.

Via E-mail: Send to Be sure to put “For B.Burtt” in the subject line.