Two topics have dominated my mailbox over the last few weeks. One of the questions has me concerned. The other I hear every winter and warrants review.
Back in November I began receiving e-mails and phone calls such as this one from Judy Rich from Glenville, W.Va: “We have not seen any cardinals at our feeders for several months, when we used to have at least eight-10 at a time. Do you know why this has happened? We are quite concerned about them.”
Another reader, Al Anglin, from Follansbee, W.Va., wrote: “Where are all the cardinals? I live in the northern panhandle of West Virginia and I have seen only one cardinal at my bird feeder this winter. In the past it would not be uncommon to see more than 20 at one time. My brother-in-law, who lives just south of Pittsburgh, Pa. (about 50 miles from where I live), said he has not even seen one.”
These are just two examples of several dozen letters I’ve received from readers wondering where the cardinals have gone. Most of the letters have come from West Virginia, western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. At first, I was unconcerned. Wild bird populations fluctuate naturally over time, so it’s normal to see numbers ebb and flow. My initial response was, “Be patient.” Natural food supplies are usually abundant in the fall, and birds typically prefer them to feeders. This year, for example, there has been a bumper crop of grapes near my house, and many birds, including cardinals, have been feasting on them. I was confident that, with some lower temperatures and a bit of snow, cardinals would return to feeders. But apparently they have not. The letters continue.
My experience runs counter to the letter writers’. As I write this, 5 inches of fresh snow covers the ground, and the thermometer read 11 degrees this morning. And my feeders are packed. Dozens of goldfinches, juncos, chickadees, titmice, white-throated sparrows, blue jays, woodpeckers and seven cardinals swarm my feeders. And when I’ve mentioned this topic on my Saturday radios shows, there are always several listeners who call in to report their feeder activity is normal.
So, is there a problem, especially with cardinals? I don’t know. I talked to Dr. David Bonter, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, several weeks ago. He told me he had not received a single inquiry about cardinal numbers. I called the lab again today (12/3), and that had not changed. So if cardinal numbers are down, the people who pay the most attention to their feeders have not reported it to FeederWatch.
My conclusion is that cardinals are a conspicuous and favorite bird, and when their numbers drop, even casual birdwatchers notice. Let’s keep our eyes open this winter, and see what happens. If you’re seeing fewer cardinals this year, let me know, and I’ll pass the information along to FeederWatch. Better yet, there’s still time to become a citizen scientist and contribute data to Project FeederWatch (www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw). By winter’s end, perhaps we’ll have an answer.
The other question I get each winter concerns robins. Ed Roman, representing many readers, writes, “I live in central Washington County, Pa., and have noticed huge flocks of robins, thousands upon thousands that appear at dusk and roost in the trees. Their droppings are purple. We have lived here for over 20 years and have never seen such a phenomenon. Could you explain this?
Though many, and perhaps most, robins migrate, some do not. And robins from Canada migrate only to the midlatitudes. People in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and surrounding states can usually find robins all winter long. But during winter’s harshest conditions, robins seek refuge in deep woods, so they are not commonly seen. In the woods they find abundant supplies of fruits and berries, their primary winter food. This also explains the colorful droppings.
Huge roosting flocks are most common in late fall, and as winter’s grip tightens, I expect more robins to slide south. Winter flocks usually number in the hundreds rather than thousands.
XSend questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or via e-mail to my Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.