An online resource based on the award-winning nature guide

Finches

Wild Bird Seed

Humans have a long history of feeding birds. As early as 1500 BC Hindus provided birds (as well as dogs, insects, “wandering outcasts” and “beings of invisible worlds”) with rice cakes.  In 1825 one of the first bird feeders was constructed out of a modified cattle trough.  Bird feeding grew in popularity in the 1900’s and by 2019 roughly 60 million people in the U.S. were feeding birds, spending more than $4 billion annually on bird food. Bird feeding has become such a common practice that many people may wonder how seed-eating birds survived long, cold winters before humans fed them.

In fact, birds do very well without a helping hand from humans. A large number of winter bird species in the Northeast, especially sparrows and finches, are seedeaters (granivorous) and there are multiple wild sources of food for these birds, many found along roadsides and in fields.  These plants, called weeds by some, are known for the copious amounts of seeds they produce.  Ragweed, Pigweed, Bindweed, Thistle and Smartweed are some of the plants that are popular with seed-eating birds.  Some of the more familiar flowering plants such as Sulphur (or Rough-fruited) Cinquefoil, Mullein, St. John’s Wort, Black-eyed Susan, Evening Primrose, Queen Anne’s Lace, Yarrow and Goldenrod also feed a host of birds with their bounteous seed crops.

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Canadian Conifer and Deciduous Tree Seed Crops Affect New England’s Winter Bird Population

11-10-15 pine siskin 185Every year Ron Pittaway publishes a forecast of the movements of winter finches in the upcoming winter (http://ebird.org/content/canada/news/ron-pittaways-winter-finch-forecast-2015-2016/). Although his report focuses on Ontario, he includes the effect that the Canadian seed crops have on northern New England’s winter bird population. A poor crop of a given seed (spruce, birch, etc.) in Canada inevitably drives finches that feed on that seed to search for food elsewhere, often further south. For instance, because White Spruce crops are low in Ontario this year and high in northern New England, we may well see high numbers of Pine Siskins (see photo).

Pittaway predicts we may also see higher than usual Purple Finch numbers (poor cone and deciduous tree seed crops in Ontario), perhaps White-winged Crossbills (poor spruce cone crop in Ontario), and more Common Redpolls (poor birch seed crop in Ontario) this winter. Time to fill feeders, sit back and see how accurate his forecast actually is!

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Sedge Seeds

1-6-15  sedge fruit in winter 057Over 500 species of sedges in the genus Carex are found in the U.S. – over half of the world’s total. The great majority of these perennial, grass-like plants grow in the moist soil of meadows, marshes and bogs, as well as in high altitudes. Sedges are often distinguished from grasses by their stem, which is typically triangular in cross-section (“sedges have edges”). The flowers of sedges, each surrounded by a bottle-shaped bract, or modified leaf called a perigynium, are clustered on spikelets. The tips of these bracts persist after the seeds have formed, giving the spikelets a prickly appearance.

Because of their wide availability, the seeds are eaten by many kinds of wildlife, especially birds. Wild Turkeys, American Woodcock, Northern Cardinals, Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, Lapland Longspurs, ducks, rails, sparrows, redpolls and finches relish them. In the Northeast, Carex seeds, along with insects, are the most regular items in the diet of Ruffed Grouse chicks. Moose also occasionally feed on sedge seeds. (Photo: Longhair or Bottlebrush Sedge, Carex comosa)

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