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Absence of winter, blue jays, juncos

By Scott Shalaway

With more than a month until April arrives, it may be premature to proclaim the end of winter. But since it never arrived, why not?

So far this winter I've seen less than 6 inches of snow, and temperatures have been incredibly mild. Only twice has my thermometer dipped to 10 degrees. We did have one mini-ice storm, but it lasted less than 12 hours, and we didn't even lose power.

Understand, I'm not complaining. Though I enjoy a pristine blanket of snow and even nose hairs that freeze with every breath, my love affair with winter ended a number of years ago. This year's mild weather has simply accelerated my countdown to spring.

Along the way, I've received a number of interesting letters from readers. More than a few have complained about an absence of blue jays and dark-eyed juncos. I've noticed this, too. I haven't seen a blue jay since last fall, and my flock of juncos consists of only a handful of individuals.

I cannot explain the lack of these two common species. I wonder if West Nile virus has returned and knocked back the blue jay population. But I doubt that's a problem because I've also heard from plenty of readers who have their normal complement of blue jays.

I blame the dearth of juncos on the mild winter. Cold and snow drive birds to feeders simply because they're an easy and reliable source of food when birds get cold and hungry. On mild days, birds forage more leisurely on natural foods. In fact, on mild days, insects are active and most birds prefer live food to seeds.

Though speculating why bird numbers fluctuate is easy, real answers are difficult to nail down. That's why I'm looking forward to this year's Great Backyard Bird Count (Feb. 17-20). When the results are posted, and that happens almost instantaneously as participants submit their data, we'll get a snapshot of winter bird populations.

First, I'll look at blue jay numbers. If there's a problem, it will be evident. I can check count results from nearby communities as well as locations all around the country. Plus I'll be able to compare this year's results to previous years.

Then I'll check junco numbers. The great thing about the GBBC is that anyone can check results by visiting http://www.birdcount.org. A week from now we'll know if blue jay and junco numbers are really down or if we're just seeing local blips in the populations.

Another problem some people have this time of year is birds crashing into windows with lethal results. Sometimes they're trying to escape a hawk in hot pursuit, or they may simply be flying into the reflection of vegetation they see on the glass. In any case, they hit the window and break their necks.

I think most homeowners have experienced the heartache of finding a dead cardinal or goldfinch beneath a window. But some windows are particularly deadly. It may be due to their size, angle of the glass, or type of habitat.

If you find more than a few dead birds under a window each year, a simple solution is available. The website http://www.birdsavers.com explains how to solve the problem.

Simply hang lengths of 1/8-inch nylon parachute cord at four-inch intervals along the width of the window. Anchor these cords to a horizontal piece strung across the top of the window frame. Allow the cords to dangle freely about three inches above the bottom of the window. Field tests have shown that this simple window treatment can reduce bird/window collisions by 90 percent to 100 percent.

Jeff Acopian, creator of birdsavers, attributes its success to birds' navigational skills in close quarters. "When birds fly through the woods or dense vegetation, they easily avoid hitting twigs and other obstacles," he said. "Likewise, they see the cords and avoid them."

The important thing is that birds avoid windows protected by birdsavers, and it's an easy do-it-yourself project. The website includes detailed instructions for making your own. Acopian does sell ready-made birdsavers on his website, but he says, "It's not about making money. It's about saving birds."

Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or via my website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.


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