Thom Smith | NatureWatch: Reader asks, Where have the chickadees at my feeder gone?


Q: I'm one of your southern Vermont readers (Wilmington). I enjoy learning about birds and am far from being an expert on their habits. Each winter, I have several feeders in my lilac tree just outside my kitchen window and so much love watching them, as do my young great-grandchildren! My question for you is regarding chickadees. I have always had lots and lots of them and they've been very friendly and talkative when I've arrived to fill the feeders. Finally, about a month ago I had one eat from my gloved hand. Such a thrill. Now the sad part — I've had very few come to the tree since that day (no connection between feeding one and their absence, I'm sure). My daughter, who lives on the other side of town, has noticed the same thing. I've changed food a couple of times and bought a new feeder for small birds only, to no avail. There are plenty of other small birds around, as well as a cardinal pair and, of course, blue jays galore. Any suggestions or ideas as to the cause of their leaving? I love your column! Thanks.

— Connie, Wilmington, Vt.

A: Birds are finicky. Our chickadees remain steady, but that isn't always the case, and like other species have better years than others.This year there appear to be more chickadees at our feeders than most other years that I can recall. It is too early for chickadees to pair up and move to breeding grounds, so anything I write is more of a guess. It might be that some nearby neighbor has begun feeding and the chickadees are saving energy by visiting a closer feeder. Or, you may be looking out at the wrong time and are missing them. Like me, you may be jumping to conclusions. Be patient and enjoy what birds you have, and congratulations on having one take seed from your hand. It has been over 50 years since a small flock of chickadees fed from my hand. One even took a gray sunflower seed from a friend's lips. Finally, fear not, they will be back.

Q: When do squirrels have their young? I had a very small red squirrel at my feeder, one of the tube type feeders with wire mesh around it to keep larger birds and, usually, squirrels out.

— Jean, Pittsfield, Mass.

A: Red squirrels are promiscuous, breeding from mid- to late January through late September. Gestation period is 36 to 40 days, so it is too soon to see young squirrels out and about this early in the year. They are only now being conceived. My thought is you had an adult red squirrel. Both sexes are about the same size, but their weight does vary between 5.8 oz. and 8.4 oz. One on the lighter side would easily squeeze through the "squirrel guard." Flying squirrels mate February through March and again June through July. And the most common in-town gray squirrel breeds in mid-winter having young about 44 days later and are weaned on average at 9 weeks old. They will be seen in family groups as they learn the "tricks of the trade." Gray squirrels also have a second brood in a season. And it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between parent and young at this stage.

And, for those readers who have concluded I dislike squirrels, because of my writing so often about squirrel deterrents, let it be known I have been putting out peanuts and Milk Bones for them this especially cruel winter.


It surely is to too cold to be looking for signs of spring, isn't it? Well no, if you believe in the maxim "In spring a man's fancy turns to thoughts of love," it may be easier for you to believe that the same holds true, minus the love part, only earlier for owls. They don't even wait for spring, and about now can be heard making their presence known by vocalizing. But first let me say that owls are pretty quiet birds with the exception of now, when males, having staked out a territory, begin hooting to attract a mate. Our two "hoot owls" are the great-horned owl that may be heard now and the barred owl, that follows in February through early April begins its hoo-hoo — wo-hoo — hoo-hoo —     hoo-hoo-oo-ooo vocalizations that can be translated into the familiar "who-cooks-for-you-who-cooks-for-you-all" with a Southern drawl incorporated into its last (extended) "hoot." The other is when the young owls leave the nest, calling out a "slurred hoot" and going off to stake their own territories.

It's best to go out to listen on a night with a bright moon and no wind. If you know of a place where sound travels across a valley for instance, go listen. Or if you live in the wilds of New England, step outside, dressed warmly, and give a listen.

Thom Smith welcomes readers' questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch @ or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.     


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