why are there so few birds this year

Although around in excellent numbers, goldfinches are not inundating feeders despite a bumper crop of juveniles thanks to the abundance of natural food resources from our exceptional growing season.

If you think it’s slow at your feeders right now, you are not alone. We are being swamped with reports and concerns here at Freeport Wild Bird Supply of “no birds,” “slow,” “they all disappeared” etc. In fact, they are so frequent – and causing so much consternation – I decided to write this blog to help further explain the observations (or lack there of).

So the first thing to know is: don’t worry. This is normal, this is natural, and it happens on a fairly regular basis. There is a lot of concern, even panic, going on right now, fueled by misinformation, inadequate answers, and downright fear-mongering on the internet (I know, shocking!).

I think the success of the 3 Billion Birds campaign, which analyzed and publicized the finding that North America has lost one in four birds since 1970, has greatly heightened awareness about the plight of the continent’s birds. Media coverage of disease in birds has increased in recent years, which is both good and bad (good in the awareness about the issues, bad in the misleading, misguided, and often irrational coverage). So we are hyper-aware.

Furthermore, the amazing growth of birding and backyard bird feeding during the pandemic has added millions of new observers, and if you are new to backyard birding, this may not have happened before to you and your feeding station.

But yes, your feeders have been slow. Our feeders have been slow. And feeders throughout the state have been slow. But let me assure you that this is OK. In fact, it’s very OK. It is not a sign of the sky falling, the Rapture, or another disease outbreak. While the overall decline of songbirds is dramatic and palpable, many resident feeder bird species are actually increasing over the long term. While I don’t want to talk you out of being concerned about the general welfare of all birds, I want to assure you that what your feeders are experiencing right now is nothing to be worried about. It’s impacting our enjoyment, yes, but it’s not a bad thing for the birds!

The most important thing to remember is that birds always prefer natural food sources (our feeders are only a helpful supplement) so if they can find what they need in their natural habitats, they do not need to visit our feeders nearly as often. If there’s ever proof-positive to finally kill this silly myth about birds being dependent on feeders, seasons like this are it! (If they were dependent, there would be the same amount of birds at feeders all the time).

So let’s talk about what’s really happening. And as usual in nature, it’s not completely simple. It’s a myriad of issues and events that have once again collided in a “perfect storm” of low feeder activity scenarios. And every yard is different, so there are exceptions to each and every rule.

In fact, it happened as recently as 2017 and 2019. In 2017, the lack of feeder birds was so widespread that it was making the TV news, and it was even registering in the region-wide wholesale market. It was not just in Maine. That fall, I took to my blog to explain it and ease concerns. Interestingly, this was my most popular (by views and shares) blog entry of all time, meaning people found it valuable. I hope this blog helps in the same way, and since many of the circumstances are the same, you’ll see more similarities than differences in the explanation.

Likewise, in the winter of 2019, I put together a little Christmas Bird Count case study to explain the perceived lack of birds at that time – to put a small amount of data into the equation.

2. Abundance of Natural Food Sources. For the most part, it is the abundance – or paucity – of natural food that determines how much activity you will have in your yard. This is particularly significant for our seed-eaters, like finches and sparrows, and fruit-eaters, like waxwings. Many trees go through “masting” cycles. This is a survival strategy in which a tree will produce a huge amount of fruit or seed one fall, followed by one or more years of very little production. Therefore, in the high production years, there is so much seed/fruit that predators cannot possibly consume it all, and the tree is all but guaranteed that a large number of its seeds will survive to germinate.

This fall has been a high production year for several common tree species. Acorns, beechnut, and other foods are in good supply, keeping Blue Jays busy. Balsam fir and Red Spruce are in good to great supply, keeping Red-breasted Nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadees happy. In fact, the mast of balsam fir is one of the components that has led to minimal southbound movements of Red-breasted Nuthatches and chickadees that would augment our local populations in winters where they move south out of the boreal, according to the Winter Finch Forecast (more on that later

Elsewhere..my goodness are Eastern White Pines laden! I mean like fall-over-from-the-weight-laden. There are so many cones that it looks like the crowns of healthy White Pine are dying.

And the soft cones and abundant seeds of White Pine are just as important to Maine’s birds as the trees are to our cultural heritage, and when there’s a mast, there’s a lot of nutritious food for our resident and migratory seed-eaters alike. There’s so much of it that Red Crossbills all the way from the Rockies are spreading east to take advantage of it (and other conifer crops), and keeping a lot of our “Northeastern” (aka Type 12) Red Crossbills around, hopefully to breed this fall and winter. Unfortunately, few if any will visit feeders as usual, at least in most of the state.

In addition to these important tree food resources, you may have noticed a wee bit of rain this summer. All summer. Record amounts. And after a slow start to the breeding and growing season (why you were feeding so much more seed than normal back in June and into July), the productive growing season has produced a whole lot of soft seeds: grasses, “weeds,” wildflowers – the natural food that our resident and migratory sparrows depend on. And goldfinches…there are A LOT of goldfinches around right now, but they are more frequent on native wildflowers such as Evening Primose that are abundant right now.

For example, in Durham, our yard is hosting 30-40 American Goldfinches daily. They’re spending most of their time in the weedy edges, meadows, and birches around our property. But since there are so many, they are constantly coming and going from our feeding station. Hulled Sunflower and Nyjer – both seeds that need to be constantly refreshed if not consumed rapidly – are by far our most popular feeders, and the two tubes dedicated to hulled sunflower have to replenished daily here. I’ve been enjoying them feasting on Evening Primrose, peeling the seed pods like a banana, then hopping over to the feeders, and after a few minutes, plopping right back into the patch of primrose (the opposite of what dependency would look like!).

2) Mild and Benign Weather. After an often miserable summer, we have earned a lovely fall, and the last few weeks have been delightful! But the mild weather also means birds eat less supplemental food as they don’t need to burn as many calories to make it through the night. There’s also a lot of insects still available – no killing frosts yet, and none on the horizon at least here in Southern Maine.

3) Facultative and Long-Distance Migrants While most of our long-distance migrants (like warblers and orioles) are departing rapidly, many of our later-season migrants (like blackbirds and most of our native sparrows, as well as most of our waterfowl) are facultative (or “flexible”) in their timing. They can adjust their respective arrival and departures based on abundance and/or access to food. Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, and the last wave of blackbirds are still not here in Southern Maine, lingering as far north as they can for as long as they can. These birds will move a short distance south as soon as they have to, and if the winter is a short one, they will begin to work their way north earlier – or even “overwinter” further north than normal. Not even a freak snowstorm will affect them – they are built for it, and will make range adjustments as needed. With so many hayfields unmowed, corn still being harvested, and lack of urgency, the usual fall complaint about being overwhelmed by flocks of voracious blackbirds have not been heard. Enjoy it while you can!

As for long (and medium-distance obligate migrants), it just so happens many of them clear out in late September. While there are still scattered Ruby-throated Hummingbirds around the state, a large portion of the population cleared out in the last two weeks. Adding to the perception that “all the birds have disappeared” was the reality that many of our migrants took advantage of favorable conditions to be on their way.

Another example of this is that here at our feeders in Durham, at least three Gray Catbirds have remained loyal and persistent. Thanks to the abundance of Arrowwood Viburnum on our property, they are still around, and between bouts of berry-harvesting, they continue to visit our suet and nut feeders. They will depart any night now, and when they do, the feeding station will be much quieter. Woodpeckers are taking advantage of all of the natural food and insects out there, so they are – as usual in the fall – making less frequent visits to the suet feeders. Our suet will be depleted much less quickly when the voracious trio of fat-deposting catbirds departs!

Also here in Durham, the first few White-throated Sparrows have finally arrived, and the first wave of Dark-eyed Juncos will be here soon. However, our extensive grassland restoration project and weedy edges have produced a bumper crop of Song Sparrows, which will mostly leave our yard before the winter. If your Song Sparrows have left already and you don’t have White-throats or juncos yet, then your white millet is not being used as quickly. Here, our millet platform is one of our feeders that we have to still fill daily (plus more on the ground) as we continue to improve our already sparrow-rific yard.

The venerable Winter Finch Forecast (WFF) lights our way here. As predicted, Purple Finches have been slow to arrive outside of the Boreal and Boreal transition belts. “In the east, many Purple Finches are expected to overwinter in southern Canada and the northeastern United States… Don’t be surprised if, as winter progresses, a late movement in January and February occurs into the Carolinas as eastern crops are depleted.” Here at our feeders in Durham, a male Purple Finch arrived this weekend – our first in a couple of weeks here.

The WFF however, is predicting a flight of Pine Siskins, possibly in large numbers. We’re starting to see a few here and there in Southern Maine, and a massive flock of 200+ showed up on Monhegan mid-week before dispersing. However, with the aforementioned abundances of natural food sources for them (hemlock, birch, alder, weeds, etc), few have been reported at feeders which will likely be the case for a while.

There may be other birds arriving in the coming months, according to the WFF, but those will be a topic for another time.

Many people have said that the birds “disappeared all at once.” And while for the most part, it is just a combination of the various topics discussed above, there are instances when feeder activity does in fact grind to a sudden halt.

There are two reasons birds stop coming to a feeder all of the sudden: the food has spoiled or is no longer accessible (the feeder clogged up) or there’s a new predator on the scene. Hopefully there’s not a new outdoor cat in the neighborhood, but it’s also the peak of raptor migration. A transient or winter resident Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk setting up camp near your feeders will indeed reduce activity suddenly. Hey, if you want to feed the small ones, you’re going to feed the big ones, so this is an important part of the cycle and should be celebrated (but yes, we all have our rooting interests). Especially young, inexperienced juvenile birds don’t always make good decisions about where to perch and give up their presence too easily. However, as soon as the local birds figure this out, they’ll stop coming and the raptor will move along and look for another concentration. And your songbirds will be back soon thereafter. That cat is a bigger problem, however.

6) Memory Bias. Humans inherently think of the recent past first (“recency bias), and so we find ourselves often comparing this fall to last fall, which saw exceptionally high feeder visitation thanks to the prolonged drought we had experienced throughout the summer, greatly reducing perennial seed crops (exactly as we had seen in the summer of 2017). Some of the masting trees were at cyclical lows, and cyclical lows of many cone and seed crops. And irruptions of Red-breasted Nuthatches, and to a lesser extent Purple Finches, were already underway by now. Especially if you have only been feeding birds – or paying more attention to your feeder birds – in the past two years, this fall would seem like a striking anomaly.

6) The Filthy Feeders and Stale Seed Catch-22. When activity is low at feeders, we can become a bit blasé about maintenance. Not keeping feeders clean and filled with fresh seed will only make it less likely that birds will want to frequent your yard. And, with ridiculously prolonged wet weather of the summer, seed went bad out there – even if it was fresh when you bought it. And unusually high humidity for much of the summer meant the “cool, dry” place you tried to store seed in was anything but. Seed spoils. It gets stale. And it did that more quickly this summer than most. Unless you have it stored in a climate controlled silo and bagged a couple of days before its ship like our exceptional seed distributor does, the seed that you have had since the spring is now worthless. And the birds know this.

No one likes to waste seed, but if it has been sitting in a feeder untouched for a month or so, it is time to toss it and start over. This is especially true for Nyjer, hulled sunflower, and shelled peanuts, which are most susceptible to the elements. (If you dump it in the woods, rest assured that something will eat it, or at the very least nothing will be harmed by it. If mold is visible, however, it is best to bury it). Clean your feeders, and disinfect them with a mixture of one part white vinegar to four parts water if mold was present. Fill your feeders halfway until activity builds up again if you are concerned about waste. When birds return and they find stale or spoiled seed in your feeders, they’ll continue right on by. Toss that saved seed. Start fresh. The birds will start coming back, but the longer you wait to restock, the longer it will take for your feeder activity to return.

7) The Big Picture We certainly do not want to downplay the significance of population declines in many of our bird species due to a whole host of large-scale issues (a topic for a different article), but rest assured that “your” birds are probably doing just fine from one year to the next over the short term. In fact, most of our resident “feeder birds” have steady, if not in some cases, increasing populations. Climate Change is affecting bird populations. Habitat loss is affecting bird populations. Cats are killing up to 4 BILLION birds a year. Windows are killing up to 1 BILLION birds a year. We could go on.

However, this has not changed in the past few weeks. Those long-term declines are often subtle and hard to detect without coordinated scientific investigation. All it takes is a walk in the woods and fields to see that the birds are out there. In fact, there are a lot of them out there, and they are doing just fine. They just don’t need our feeders as much right now.

And because of that, consider working on adding more native plants and natural food sources to your yard. That will keep more birds around more of the time, and – like our goldfinches and sparrows at our home in Durham – augment feeder activity in what is otherwise a slow season.

8) It WILL Change! Natural food supplies will slowly get used up, nights will get colder and longer, and our facultative migrants will come. A frost will come, ending the growing and insect seasons. Eventually, we’ll see some snow and ice that will make it harder to find the remaining natural food, and when all of those things happen, our feeders will be ready for them!

In a few weeks, the comment about Blue Jays “eating me out of house and home” will begin as they ramp up their winter caching. They’ll focus mostly on acorns as usual, augment it with pine nuts, but also supplement that with nuts and seeds from our feeders. Blackbirds flocks will begin to depart the farmlands and stop by feeding stations for some refueling. Weed seeds will begin to be used up, pushing more arriving sparrows and goldfinches back to feeders more of the time.

This is normal, explainable, and predictable. It happens every now and then. It will change. Refresh your seed, adjust your offerings, and clean your feeders. Quality seed matters, especially when there are other options around for birds to choose instead. Make a planting plan for next year to improve the quality of your surrounding habitat. Keep cats indoors, windows treated to prevent strikes, and support bird conservation efforts. We want more birds around us, for our pleasure and for the ecological benefits. And as this fall demonstrates, feeders are only a small part of the equation.

We hope this helps clear up some of the misinformation out there. And please do share this widely – we want to get the word out. And finally, if you have any additional questions, feel free to drop by the store.

And never stop looking! You never known what might show up out there, even on the slow days, like this young female Dickcissel that graced the feeders at the store for a week earlier this month.

A lot of people have asked about Hurricane Lee and its effect on birds, so just wanted to comment about that here. Simply put: Lee had NOTHING to do with it; it was irrelevant. However, in the days before and after the storm’s passage, there was excellent conditions for migration (the first in a while), so many migratory birds did clear out at that time. And yes, the amount of rain likely clogged some feeders and spoiled some seed, too, but no more than any other storm would. So basically, I believe the passage of Lee was merely coincidental at best.

On the other hand…here come the Pine Siskins! Reports of huge numbers pouring out of the boreal are being received, and birds are arriving in northern and eastern Maine. Be sure you have fresh Nyjer ready to go!

With the onset of colder weather, feeder activity is picking up dramatically. More and more folks are reporting “the birds are back” at their feeding stations. At our home in Durham, we never “lost” feeder activity, but it has certainly picked up over the past two weeks. We’ve had 50+ American Goldfinches scarfing Nyjer and hulled sunflower the last few days, up from the 20-30 that have been frequent for most of the fall.

Dark-eyed Juncos and Eastern Bluebirds are returning to feeders, but sparrow numbers overall remain low…I think most of the White-throated Sparrows have gone over and through, but American Tree Sparrows have not yet arrived.

Here at the store, the feeder activity remains below normal, however, but Eastern Bluebirds have just returned here as well. But our surrounding habitat doesn’t hold nearly as many birds as our yard in Durham, so this is a big part of the equation.

So to sum it up: it’s getting better, more active, and more diverse at the feeders. And I think fresh seed is a big part of the equation, so if you’re waiting for birds to return with only old, stale (or worse) seed to offer, I think you’ll be waiting even longer (more on this soon, as I am playing around with another blog on the topic).

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Apart from these crucial sources of food for trees, you might have observed a small amount of precipitation this summer. All summer. Record amounts. Additionally, the productive growing season has produced a large amount of soft seeds, such as grasses, “weeds,” and wildflowers, which are the natural food that our resident and migratory sparrows depend on. This is why you were feeding so much more seed than usual back in June and into July after the breeding and growing season got off to a slow start. And goldfinches—there are a ton of them around at the moment, but they are more common when they are feeding on native wildflowers like the abundant Evening Primose.

Similarly, in order to add a tiny bit of data to the equation and explain why there seemed to be fewer birds during that particular period of time in the winter of 2019, I created a little Christmas Bird Count case study.

However, the WFF anticipates a Pine Siskin flight, possibly in large numbers. Southern Maine is starting to see a few of these birds now and then, and midweek on Monhegan, a huge flock of 200 of them appeared before scattering. But despite the previously mentioned abundances of naturally occurring food sources (hemlock, birch, alder, weeds, etc.), very few have been observed at feeders, and this is probably going to continue for some time.

However, reports of massive numbers of pine siskins emerging from the boreal are being received, and the birds are making their way to northern and eastern Maine. Be sure you have fresh Nyjer ready to go!.

If you think it’s slow at your feeders right now, you are not alone. We are being swamped with reports and concerns here at Freeport Wild Bird Supply of “no birds,” “slow,” “they all disappeared” etc. In fact, they are so frequent – and causing so much consternation – I decided to write this blog to help further explain the observations (or lack there of).


Why are so many birds disappearing?

What’s driving this decline? NARRATOR: Birds are losing the habitats they need, places to live, find food, rest, and raise their young. They face many other threats as well—from free-roaming cats and collisions with glass, to toxic pesticides and insect declines.

Why are there no birds all of a sudden?

Bird populations fluctuate seasonally and from one year to the next for a range of reasons. Often when someone reports that birds have gone missing from their yard, they are just seeing normal variation. Causes for these regular changes include: Fluctuating food supplies/requirements.

Why don’t birds come to my feeder anymore?

The feeder is new or has been left empty for a while. Possibly twice that long for a specialty feeder (suet, peanut, etc.). Birds can be wary of new objects, so even a shiny new feeder replacing an old one may require an adjustment period.

What is the main reason for the decline of birds population?

Although the study did not investigate causes, scientists have identified that habitat loss is the biggest overall driver of bird declines. Habitat loss occurs when land is converted for agriculture, development, resource extraction, and other uses. Habitat degradation is a second cause of losses.