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Northland Nature: Large Birds Come to Our Feeders

A Wild Turkey searches for and feeds on seeds under the snow. Larry Weber photos1 / 2
Wild Turkey track in the snow. Note the size next to the Oak leaves.2 / 2

Like many others who spend the entire cold season in the Northland, I put out food for birds. Unlike some of the local avian feeders, I do not keep the feeding sites stocked with grain throughout the year. I began the feeding and watching of birds this year about the middle of October.

At this time, I put out sunflower seeds only. I have learned that putting out suet too early in the season can bring in bears that can destroy the whole feeder to grasp the desired suet. I took down and cleaned the bird feeders in the spring; somewhere around the end of April. And for nearly five and a half months, these feeders were devoid of the sunflower seeds. But when I opened for business by filling the feeders at noon on October 12, I was surprised at how quickly these little feathered ones appeared.

Within ten minutes, three kinds of birds had arrived to sample this new source of food. First one was the regular and always-present black-capped chickadee. A few minutes later, a white-breasted nuthatch came by and then a hairy woodpecker took seeds here too. Before this first day way over, blue jays, red-bellied woodpeckers and juncos were dining at this site as well. How did they know to come so quickly? Could they have remembered from last year? Or were they just watching me? Whatever the reason, I’m glad they came by.

Feeding in October has different results than winter days. While the chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers are mostly permanent residents that could also be here on a winter day, many of the jays and juncos are migrants. Finding ample food, juncos may last a while before moving south. A few years ago, I had one junco remain throughout the cold season. Other migrants; white-throated sparrows and fox sparrows, visited the feeder in these mid days of October.

As the month proceeded, the breakfast crowd settled in to a regular eight kinds. The black-capped chickadees, white-breasted nuthatches, hairy woodpeckers, red-bellied woodpecker, blue jays and juncos continued to come, but were joined by two others; red-breasted nuthatches and downy woodpeckers.

Feeding birds in the cold and snowy time of the year is not recommended by all. Some say that the birds learn to rely on our handouts. In watching them both at the feeding site and elsewhere, I am convinced that the birds do not need us or our food to survive. They can get along without us. And many of us may need them more than they need us through the winter. Watching birds at the feeder all winter adds much companionship for us. It gives us a chance to learn different kinds of bird species and their behavior. I have also found that there is quite a variation day to day at this food source. It is a dynamic place.

And so just when it looked like it would be the regular eight kinds of birds showing up each day, I began to notice some changes. Along with the new month, came a new kind; goldfinches arrived. And as I watched, I saw that the number of these regular occurring birds; jays and juncos, were not the same. Maybe they were responding to the shorter days or the food supply in the surrounding areas.

Driving just to the north of here one day last week, I noted a flock of snow buntings, a wintering bird, along the road. Nearby was a group of turkeys feeding. I wondered if the turkeys would wander to our yard in their food search. And then in early November, we looked out to see five of these huge dark birds in the yard. Slowly, they worked their way to our feeders; another new bird feeding here. Scratching in the snow-covered lawn and pecking at discovered food, they moved to the feeders. Here on the ground, they discovered large amounts of sunflower seeds that had fallen from above. Ground feeders, like juncos, find plenty to eat here and this seems to satisfy tem just fine. The five large gallinaceous birds put on an interesting show until their dining time was done. And for the next several days, they continued to find breakfast here.

I saw the first wild turkey in the region about fifteen years ago. Apparently, with statewide populations that were growing, they moved further north. Over the next few years, I saw more. They became a regular on the local Christmas Bird Count. Occasionally in winter, I would see them and in spring, I noted the gobbling of the males, but they avoided our yard until now. They feed on a number of seeds and nuts including acorns. We have many oaks growing in the area, but this year, I noted that the acorn crop was limited. Was this quintet of hungry birds in the new snow cover out seeking food and just happened to find it at our bird feeders? They look like a family unit. Prior to the turkeys arrival, the largest birds at the feeders have been blue jays and pileated woodpeckers. I hope these large birds arriving in early November will stay and maybe be present when the small wintering finches show up.

Larry Weber

Retired teacher Larry Weber is the author of several books, including “Butterflies of the North Woods,” “Spiders of the North Woods,” “Webwood” and “In a Patch of Goldenrods.” Contact him c/o budgeteer@duluthbudgeteer.com.

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