How are your feathered friends doing this winter?
Submitted by Garden Club RFD
In April, Audubon reported that in the Washington, DC area, many birds were showing strange symptoms such as swollen eyes, badly crusty eyes, blindness, disorientation – and dying. Similar reports came in from Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia in late May. By the end of June, the US Geological Survey Wildlife Health Information Sharing Partnership was reporting sick birds in Delaware, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Florida and Indiana.
Scientists worked at the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute, and after rigorous nationwide testing, several common avian pathogens were ruled out, along with West Nile virus and avian flu. No specific cause has been identified, but theories have existed!
When something like this happens, scientists look to the environment. A major environmental change in the mid-Atlantic region was the emergence of Brood X cicadas. Because birds ate a lot of cicadas last spring, they investigated how diet changes might have hurt bird populations. However, they then saw the same problems in areas without cicadas, and it continued even after the cicadas were gone. Scientists at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center are continuing to investigate the cause. It will take researchers longer to come up with a definitive answer, but the search for answers will continue and will be found.
Meanwhile, concerned citizens have been advised to dismantle their bird feeders and put away the bird baths. They were asked to clean everything with a 10 percent bleach solution. They did so because David Curson, director of bird conservation at Audubon Mid Atlantic, said, “The birds that have seen the symptoms are birds that tend to come to feeding sites.”
What our garden club members saw was the disappearance of blue jays, common grackles, robins, northern cardinals, titmouse and more from their gardens. Then, this past fall, the number of emerging birds began to increase – very slowly – and members put back the feeders and bird baths. Luckily our friends had recovered and were normal.
It’s winter now and we were concerned about how these native birds would fare. Would they survive the cold temperatures and howling winds of a blizzard? In January, RFD Garden Club members were amazed at the wide variety of birds that frequented the bird feeders and baths. In this area, science has told us that birds, like us, are warm-blooded but have a much higher metabolism and body temperature — around 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Maintaining this higher level is a challenge for these creatures, and so they have adapted physically and behaviorally.
They grow extra feathers with an oil coating that provides insulation and waterproofing. Their legs and feet are covered with special scales to stop heat loss. You build up fat reserves for insulation and to generate more body heat. Bird watchers can observe some of their adaptive behaviors, like fluffing their feathers to provide extra insulation. Keep an eye out for birds poking their beaks into their shoulder fathers or turning their backs to the sun with their wings and tails outstretched. In extreme conditions, birds shiver to boost their metabolism and generate more body heat. Efficient adaptations abound, but homeowners can still help by providing good food and water (by heating their birdbaths when temperatures are low), and by providing sheltering shrubs and trees for feathered friends.
For information about Garden Club RFD, contact Ruth Korn at [email protected] New members are always welcome to attend the club’s general meetings, which are held once a month on the third Tuesday of the month at 10:00 am at the Little Red Schoolhouse across from Thompson Middle School in Middletown.