Birds’ ‘surprise’ migrations leave empty spot in surroundings

by VALLE NOVAK Contributing writer
| September 13, 2020 1:00 AM

It’s funny how things happen unexpectedly when we’ve been aware of their imminence all along. I’m writing this after the fact(s), but I can’t help but wonder if there are others of my ilk taken by surprise as well.

By “ilk” I mean bird feeder types who – like me – see daily to the filling of feeders, suet holders, nectar bottles and watering spots for their feathered charges. The ‘unexpected’ of course, refers to migration. Case in point: On Aug. 21, I put out new bottles of hummingbird nectar, and noticed that only two of those little gems appeared for the feast. The fact that I didn’t see another hummer all day didn’t register with me, but the next day I realized there was not a hummingbird around anywhere. The day after that, I was chatting with my across-the-road neighbor and she remarked that the hummingbirds had simply disappeared from her feeders as well.

Correctly assuming that migration had taken place, I decided to consult the 2020 Old Farmer’s Almanac. Guess what? Under Thursday, August 27, was the following: “Hummingbirds migrate south.” Apparently the little guys mistook the date and left a week early. Still, it seemed too early to me, and I couldn’t recall that they had ever left in August before.

But the birds innately know when it’s time to move, and that’s a good thing – though it seems that maybe it foretells early winter. With that in mind, I perused the Almanac into September – which told of past hurricanes but foretold none – but noted that Sept. 30 was “woodchuck hibernating time.” October’s messages included: Oct. 3 – “Watch for banded wooly-bear caterpillars now”(I love those little fuzzies.); Oct. 11 - “Little brown bats hibernate now;” Oct. 26 –“Timber rattlesnakes move into winter dens now”; Oct. 30 – “If you wish to live and thrive, let a spider run alive.” (Just had to put that one in). But, levity aside, in the weather section, we’re warned of “snowy periods on Oct. 16-20." That seems a bit early to me, but the OFA has an impressive record of hitting pretty close to home in all its prognostications. Anyhow, I figured it could account for the early departure of the hummingbirds. *

“My” enormous flock of tiny pine siskins startled me with their disappearance the other day – the truly countless little birds simply disappeared. I was pretty sure they don’t migrate, so consulted one of my bevy of bird books and read an astonishing remark about their habit of occasionally taking off in large flocks and swooping about the countryside – spending days in many different surroundings and then returning to their “home base.”

That is obviously what happened here, because this very morning after nearly a week gone, I looked out the kitchen window at their “feeding grounds” and there they all were. There was a change in the group, however: They have always been in the company of pairs of Rose-breasted and Evening Grosbeaks who seemed to be their protectors - and the big guys had gone south in their absence. Then I saw that the two pairs of resident Rufous-sided Towhees who were part of the cafeteria community, were “baby-sitting” the flock. They fed among them, allowing the closeness of the many siskins, and if they took sudden flight in alarm at something, the entire mass of Siskins flew too – only settling back in when the Towhees returned to the ground like an “all clear” signal.

I must interject a negative re those adorable-but-territorial Siskins. They don’t allow Sparrows of any kind on their feeding areas and gang up to chase them away. For years now, I have fed the sparrows on the end of the deck, since they prefer more simple fare. Many people who feed birds don’t realize that Sparrows can’t eat sunflower seeds – their bills won’t break the hull – so they need other sustenance. Millet and canary seeds work well – and finely cracked corn and bread crumbs. Too, they don’t use feeders, so a porch deck or open area (away from the Siskin grounds) is great for them.

Though some folks malign Sparrows, there’s no reason for it. They are sweet, non-aggressive birds (who allow themselves to be bullied by the Siskins) and destroy their share of pests in your garden beds. I generally host only four species of sparrows – Song, White-crowned, Chipping, and Tree (or Field) – I get mixed up on the latter two. The only one that doesn’t leave for the winter seems to be the White-crowned – which I see from time to time throughout the winter.

The friendly and ubiquitous Dark-eyed Juncos are perky winter residents, and enjoy the same feeding areas as the sparrows, along with the forage in the winter garden. I generally host a flock of a dozen or more each year. Non-migratory birds include the woodpecker/Jay/Flicker clan – so I make sure to keep plenty of suet blocks hanging and ready for them as well as the Chickadees and Nuthatches. By the way, I have learned to hang the suet blocks under the eaves along with the seed feeders instead of on nearby trees, because raptors and crows are always on the lookout for small birds in the open. The porch roof provides at least a little protection.

  • Now, a final word that answers the questions posed earlier in this column. I just received my copy of “Neighbors” and Bird-man Mike Turnlund’s “Bird in Hand” column discussed the “early” migration of the hummingbirds as an annual “given” – along with his usual interesting observations of varied bird-life. Who knew?. Thanks, Mike. Readers, if COVID-19 has you bored stiff, take up bird watching. The watching alone, plus the feeding and the constant research will keep you on your toes.

Valle Novak writes the Country Chef and Weekend Gardener columns for the Daily Bee. She can be reached at or by phone at 208-265-4688 between the hours of 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.


Valle Novak