Into the Wild: Read this before asking ‘Where have the birds gone?’

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My colleague and friend Doug Hitchcox is Maine Audubon’s staff naturalist, and answering questions about birds and nature is a huge part of his job. Every one of his mailboxes is under constant bombardment from people with questions about bird identifications, birdseed recommendations, strange (and often fanciful) sightings, and other inquiries.

Doug has fielded so many questions over so many years that he knows to expect certain inquiries at certain times of the year. July, for example, is “I found a baby bird, who do I call?” season. (In the majority of instances, he writes as part of his weekly Ask Maine Audubon column for the Portland Press Herald, the best course of action is to just leave the baby bird alone.)

Another question pops up in late August and September, as reliably as the first flocks of warblers migrating south: “Where are the birds?”

There is often a noticeable decline in bird activity in the late summer and early fall. Feeders may be empty, and the woods are quiet. It can be a sudden disappearance, and with all the talk about climate change, disease outbreaks, insects declines, habitat loss, and other threats, it’s easy to feel like something awful has happened.

But it hasn’t. Birds just aren’t as evident or numerous at this time of year. Let’s talk about where the birds are, and why they’re there.

There is a lot of food around in late August and September, and birds typically prefer it to your backyard bird feeder. Lots of plants like goldenrods and asters are going to seed this time of year, and so are putting lots of natural food onto the landscape for seed-eating birds like finches and sparrows to eat. There are lots of berries around, too, from plants like mountain ash and several species of viburnum; robins, gray catbirds, northern mockingbirds, cedar waxwings, and brown thrashers all get in on the feast.

Backyard feeders aren’t the safest place for birds to eat. Flocks of birds plucking seeds from a single tray is basically a buffet table for a hungry hawk, and so birds may be better off getting a varied diet from scattered food sources. Don’t worry, the birds will return to your feeders once the natural seeds and berries are eaten or covered in snow.

Mourning doves are a familiar sight in Maine. (Portland Phoenix/Nick Lund)

Another reason it may seem like birds have disappeared is because they’re not as vocal this time of year. Birds typically sing in the spring and summer, when they have mates to attract and territories to defend. Then there is often plenty of noise in the summer when babies are chirping to each other. But in fall the babies are off on their own and the mating season is over. There’s no need to sing (it just attracts attention from predators), and it’s easier to be silent.

Finally, it’s migration season. Migratory birds head south when weather conditions are right, and millions of birds are on the move across New England in September and October. As the fall progresses Maine will see new visitors moving in, birds like northern finches and dark-eyed Juncos, that will spend their winter here. But during the in-between period, there are naturally just fewer birds around.

Most of Maine’s bird species are enduring slow, long-term declines, but these trends aren’t noticeable on a monthly or seasonal scale. In August and September, there are just fewer birds at your feeders, but it’s a natural and healthy part of the cycle. So delete that email you were writing to Doug at Maine Audubon, and restock that feeder in preparation for fall.

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, The Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com and on Twitter @TheBirdist.