Early birds and February Feeder Survey results


By Benjamin P. Burtt

TOPIC: The Spring migration has begun. Comments are made about the birds that have already arrived and those that are expected in the next two weeks before the next column comes out. Some details are presented on the phoebe, the first flycatcher to arrive.

ALSO :The results of the Feeder Survey for the first week of February.


This column is divided into two sections

Section 1 includes material about the phoebe and other species that are expected to arrive shortly . This appeared in the Post Standard today.

Section 2 presents the results of the February Feeder Survey, what birds were seen, the birds that are abundant, those that are scarce and some of the unusual birds that were spotted.

The Spring migration of the birds always begins in early March in Central New York .

Birds that normally appear during the first week of March are the male red-winged blackbird, Canada goose, grackle and cowbird. A few of you may have already seen these birds.

What new birds can we expect to see this coming week? Most all of us think of the robin as the REAL sign of spring. The robins begin to move in from the south about March 10 each year. But what about the ones we see before that? Are they early migrants? The answer is that it is very hard to tell. Here is the reason.

In the fall, most of the robins go south. However, for some reason every year, there are flocks of robins that do not migrate. There are not many of these flocks, but there are always robins about Central New York through the winter. They find an area where there are berries to eat and unfrozen streams or marshes with muddy spots in which they can probe for food. My guess is that having found such a spot, they stay there for the winter. The people who live nearby see them all winter long. The Feeder Survey shows that there are robins being seen every month from October through May, but only from a few scattered locations.

As the day become longer compared to the length of the night, there is a change in the hormones in most birds. This tends to produce a restlessness, an “urge to migrate” in those that go south as part of the approach of the breeding season. This restlessness also affects those small flocks that did not migrate and have spent the winter in Central New York.

During February, these wintering birds start to move around more. If they now wander into your yard, it naturally raises the question, are these robins that have returned early from the south?

On the average, the robins that have been south start to return about March 10. Suddenly, one day near the 10th we see them everywhere. The ones we saw in February though were probably here somewhere in Central New York all winter.

This week in addition to robins, we should spot a few migrant bluebirds. Killdeer and meadowlarks are due. Turkey vultures will probably be seen overhead.

During the week after that, March 13-19, the female red-winged blackbird is expected. Also due that week, is the phoebe. It is the first flycatcher to arrive. The other members of the flycatcher family do not show up until May.

The eastern phoebe, the first flycatcher to migrate will arrive about March 15. It is a gray-brown bird that bobs its tail down and up while perched. You can attract it to a nesting shelf about 6 inches square placed in a sheltered spot under the eaves, on a porch or inside a barn. (This painting is from Peterson’s “Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America” (Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Co.)

Why does the phoebe come back so early and how does it survive when there are no insects to eat? First of all, it doesn’t go very far south for the winter. It spends the winter in the Southern U.S. All the other flycatchers go to Central or South America for the winter and do not show up here until May when insects are available here.

I found a list of the foods that the phoebe eats in a 1967 book “Attracting Birds: from the prairies to the Atlantic” by Verne Davison. In the list of the plant food that it eats, there were 6 listed and only two have berries that could still be available when the bird returns in March, they are sumac and poison ivy . .

Those are the only fruits that persist until spring that were listed for the phoebe, but I suspect that it may find other berries that are left from the previous fall. Many other fruits that it eats in the summer were listed, but these are the only ones that have berries that are still available when it returns in the Spring.

If you see phoebes feeding on berries this spring, I would be very interested to have you tell me what they are eating.

The phoebe is a gray-brown, sparrow-like flycatcher with a light breast and a black bill. It has the habit of bobbing its tail downward and this helps identify it.

Its name comes from the song which is a hoarse, two syllable “fee-bee’, fee-bee “. The first “fee-bee” goes down in pitch, while the second goes up.

Sometimes the courtship call of the chickadee in late winter is thought to be the song of the phoebe. That of the chickadee is a clear, whistled call while that of the phoebe is hoarse and is not heard until late March.

SECTION 2 The results of the February Feeder Survey
During the first week of February, many readers watched their yard and counted the numbers of birds of each species. At the end of that week, they sent me a list showing the maximum number of birds of each species they saw at any one time during the week.

For example, if they saw 25 blue jays that week, but never more than 4 at a time, then 4 was the number they put on the list for that species. We know that at least that many were in the vicinity.

The first bird to arrive from the south is the male red-winged blackbird which comes about March 1. While a few red-wings have been here all winter, the migrants usually show up in Central New York during the first week of March and begin to sing. However, that first date can vary a week either way. This year I am still looking forward to hearing the song, “oh-ker-ee”, which for me says that spring has really arrived.

On the February feeder survey, out of 100 reports there normally would be perhaps 10 that listed one or more winter resident red-wings. This time there was only one report of 15 birds. They have been scarce all winter.

More bird news from the February Feeder Survey
For each of you who feeds birds, it is fun to be able to compare what you saw in your yard during the first week of February with the observations of others who feed birds. The February Feeder Survey has now been tabulated.

Here are the birds most often seen, and the number present at the average feeder during the period from February 6 to 12.

There were five species that were seen by over 90% of the observers. Here are those species with the average number of each that was listed on the reports. You can compare this to your count - - - Chickadees 5, mourning dove 9, cardinal 4, crow 20 and white-breasted nuthatch 2.

The two most numerous birds were the mourning dove and the goldfinch. More abundant than normal were tree sparrows, titmice, juncos and purple finches. While the tally for redpolls was low, the few people who had them had about 20 each.

The count for red-wings, grackles and cowbirds was low. Only a few bluebirds and pheasants were reported.

Some species do not travel in flocks and we usually see just the male and the female. This is true of the following species in which we see only 1 or 2. These include the downy woodpecker, the white-breasted nuthatch, the red-breasted nuthatch and the tufted titmouse.

The short listsEvery list is important for I am interested in knowing what birds people see. Some people have a better habitat than do others and have a greater variety of species. However, to learn what birds are around, we need to have reports whether they are long or short.

The fourth grade class at the New Haven Elementary School continues to send a list that is forwarded by their teacher Mrs. Norma Griffin. Their feeders are in a courtyard and it is a bit hard for birds to find the feeders. This time they had goldfinches and a mourning dove.

Listing 6 species were Eugenia Fish of Cortland and Susan Fondy of Watertown. Dan Frantis of Syracuse listed 7. Reporting 8 species were Charlels Bruner of Brooktondale, Judith Miller at Pulaski and Barb Robinson and Bob and Shirley Rock at Oswego.

The average feeder in early February had 14 species. So now lets look at the longest lists.

The longest listsAt Waterloo, Linda Quackenbush had 32. Ken Smith had 28 at Freeville. There were 25 on the list from John and Elizabeth Wallace of Baldwinsville. Listing 24 species were Ken Zoller at West Winfield and Lawrence Abrahamson of Marcellus. Tallying 23 were Steve and Dorothy Hanzlik of Whitney Point and Steve Swensen of Baldwinsville. In Perryville,

Kathy and Scott Trefz listed 22. Seeing 21 were Judy Thurber of Liverpool ,David Pardee of Brewerton and Paul Radway of Pompey. There were 20 on the lists from Matt Young of DeRuyter and Sharon Robarge of Richland.

Scarce birdsSome species were reported by only one person. In Dewitt, Estelle Hahn had a screech owl. Judy Thurber observed 2 great black-backed gulls at Liverpool. Dorothy Coye reported goldeneyes at Skaneateles. In Waterloo, Linda Quackenbush had the only red-wings and horned larks. Ken Smith tallied a mockingbird and a few golden crowned kinglets. Matt Young had 2 rusty blackbirds near Deruyter. Ilse Vogelpoel saw a chipping sparrow in Manlius.


Below is a list of all species reported. For each bird, the first figure is the number of them listed on 100 reports and the number in parentheses is the percentage of the reports that listed that species.

Canada goose 364 (20);
Ducks: black 2 (1); mallard 30 (4); goldeneye 8 (1); common merganser 6 (3).

Daytime birds of prey: sharp-shinned 18 (18); Cooper’s 21 (18); red-tailed 32 (28; kestrel 2 (2); pheasant 3 (3); ruffed grouse 2 (2); turkey 118 (8).

Gulls: ring-billed 17 (8); herring 5 (2); great black-backed 2 (1); rock dove 139 (15; mourning dove 917 (97); screech owl 1 (1); horned owl 7 (4).

Woodpeckers: red-bellied 41 (32); downy woodpecker 189 (81); hairy 94 (50); flicker 3 (3); pileated 3 (2);

Horned lark 9 (1). Blue jay 311 (77); crow 4059(2000 in 1) (92); raven 11 (4); black-capped chickadee 490 (98); titmouse 147 (67); red-breasted nuthatch 50 (32); white-breasted nuthatch 141 (90); brown creeper 7 (6); Carolina wren 4 (4); golden crowned kinglet 4 (1); bluebird 9 (4); robin 497 (27); mockingbird 3(2); starling 678 (59); cedar waxwing 119 (5); cardinal 419 (97).

Sparrows: tree 518 (55); song 6 (3); white-throated 73 (24); junco 510 (85).

Red-winged blackbird 15 (1); rusty blackbird 2 (1); cowbird 30 (6); grackle 4 (3); purple finch 228 (24); house finch 298 (46); redpoll 162 (8); siskin 24 (8); goldfinch 855 (80); evening grosbeak 23 (2); house sparrow 613 (55).

The March feeder survey starts today and ends Saturday.
Please watch whenever you can and keep a record of the number of birds of each species that you see each time. At the end of the week, list the largest number of each species that you saw at any one time during that week.

Arrange all the species in the order shown in the list on this page from last month. Put each species on a separate line with the number first, followed by the birds name. Please write the number of species at the top of the list.

At the end of the week, put your list on a postcard or in a letter and send it to B.P.Burtt, Smokey Hollow Rd., Jamesville, NY 13078-9548. You can send results by EMAIL to birdcolumn@usadatanet.net( Please include the name of your town ).

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