Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Heed the Seed

Drawing of Tufted Titmouse
 When I read a great blog entry on the Cornell Lab website today, it answered a question I've had for a long time about birds and feeders in the winter upstate.  No matter how many seeds I put in the bird feeder, I find that they are gone in almost a wink of an eye.  I look out and see the friendly little titmice and chickadees at the feeders non-stop.  It turns out that birds, like squirrels and chipmunks, are caching or storing seeds for the winter when food becomes less available.  So what birds like the black-capped chickadee, the nutcracker, and the tufted titmouse shown in my drawing for the Field Guide do is to gather lots and lots of seed--not only to eat them, but instead mostly to hide them in all the wonderful nooks and crannies that nature and humans provide—in knotholes, in the little spaces in bark, in the edges of needle clusters, in the crotch of branches, and in the crevices and nooks near overlapping human-made things--shingles, gutters, and overhangs around the house.  Titmice usually live their entire lives within a mile or so of their birth, so they probably know the area around my house better than I do, and I 'm sure they have their secret spots.  Caching is not so easy for the titmice.  They typically do it one seed at a time, shelling it and hiding the kernel around 150 or so feet from where they got it.  They have to remember every place they cache their winter reserves too.  Animal researchers have found that chickadees, for example, can remember not only where they have stored their seeds but also which ones they or other animals have eaten and they remember especially the caches that contain their favorite food items.  Here’s another fascinating find in the study of chickadees—they actually grow extra neurons in the fall as they get busy hiding and remembering where they hid their caches.  Wouldn’t we all like to be able to do this when the need arises?
      Birds, especially nutcrackers, have been found to establish thousands of caches containing 100,000 or more seeds in a single year.  This behavior has another side effect of replanting our forests with new trees. When the birds don’t return to eat a cache, the seeds may start to germinate into a new tree.  Here’s something else that you may not realize.  Many birds do not like us to watch them as they hide their winter cache.  So don’t let them see you as they fly off from your feeder seed in mouth and heading to their secret cache.  They have learned to be careful of possible cache thieves.  So give them their privacy.  Everyone needs a private space, even our favorite feeder visitors.  

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