Hungry birds: Cold spring delays migration, limits food sources

As a bird watcher for Cornell University's Project FeederWatch for the past four years, Viola Riggle of Alexandria has
seen her share of birds.

But this spring she is seeing something a little different: the common redpoll, a small songbird in the finch family.

"We hadn't ever seen them before and they've been around almost a month here now," she said. "They're in large numbers, like 50 to 100 sometimes. They're just hanging tight here until things warm up to go farther north. Usually they'd have been long gone by now."

The reason the common redpolls have been present is due to the unseasonably cold weather, according to Ben Eckhoff, the naturalist at Lake Carlos State Park.

"It (the weather) really affects those migrant species, the ones who have been here in the winter but need to go further north," Eckhoff said. "They're sticking around because they can't go farther north yet with the weather. So they're congregating in larger and larger numbers it seems every week."

The cold weather presents challenges because bodies of water are still frozen, as are some food sources. This is why some species are waiting to return to the area or to move farther north.

The weather hasn't drastically affected the birds that stay in Minnesota year-round, according to Eckhoff. Still, those birds may be taking advantage of feeders more than they typically would at this time of the season.

"You may see more of them at your feeder than normal, because the food is still covered by snow," Eckhoff said. "We're not getting flowers or seeds or anything like that, as the budding is behind."

With the birds that remain in the region all year in addition to the migrating birds, Eckhoff says it is important for people to keep their feeders full.


"Feeding birds is a year-round process and it's a commitment regardless," he said. "But right now you have a large number of birds coming to the feeder because of this prolonged spring. You have your year-round birds plus people will notice they have a lot of common redpolls and juncos at their feeders now."

This has been the case for Riggle, who has had to stay on top of filling her feeders.

"I've had to keep them filled up now because the common redpolls are really chowing down and emptying out," she said. "I've had to fill them up twice a day and that wasn't the case in the wintertime at all."

There are some species that have yet to return to the area at all, especially those that rely on open water.

"Where we notice it is the insect eaters or waterfowl, the spring arrivals," Eckhoff said. "We are noticing that we are behind just because of the weather.

"We are seeing geese and waterfowl but we aren't seeing the large flocks of migrating waterfowl because it's still very frozen and cold. They're delayed and waiting to time it based on the weather to be able to push farther north."

If the cold persists, Eckhoff says, it could potentially delay the breeding process for area birds. In the meantime, though, they're adapting as well as possible.

"They all kind of adjust, it's just kind of nature's way," Eckhoff said. "I think kind of like we are, the animals are itchy right now, and they're taking advantage of every waking moment of nice days we're having."

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