Vermont experts offer guidelines for bringing birds, not bears, to a feeder

The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends that Vermonters wait until the beginning of December to set up their bird feeders to avoid attracting bears. Photo by Aaron J. Hill/Pixels

The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends that Vermonters wait until the beginning of December to set up their bird feeders to avoid attracting bears.

Although bird feeding is an exciting way to get up close and personal with neighborhood chickadees and cardinals, Doug Morin, head of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Birding Project, said feeders aren’t necessary to help birds survive winter. As such, people should avoid the temptation to place feeders outside until the bears begin to hibernate.

Morin also noted that if people see a bear during the dormant period—December through April—they should put down their bird feeders for at least one week. If the bear cannot find food, it will most likely return to its den for the winter.

“People should do everything they can to prevent a bear from finding food in their home, because once this happens, the bear may return for years to continue foraging,” wrote Jacqueline Cuomo, a wildlife biologist with Vermont Fish and Wildlife and director of the Black Bear Project. In an email to VTDigger.

If Vermonters have a “chronic history with birds feeding in their yard,” Cuomo said, they should wait until there is at least a foot of snow on the ground before placing a bird feeder outside.

“Historically, bears have been known to come out of hibernation during warm periods in the winter. It’s not crazy when you see a bear in January,” Morin said.

However, sightings of bears while dormant happen more often, according to Morin, in part because of warming temperatures from the effects of climate change.

While Vermonters will likely see the same set of bird personalities at their feeders this year, climate change is also affecting migration patterns among the state’s bird populations.

Morin said this caused some birds to fly “farther and farther north” in Vermont during the spring and summer.

He noted that most of the nearly 300 species of birds that have been recorded in Vermont are migratory. For example, bobolinks, described by Morin as one of Vermont’s “most attractive pasture birds,” raise their young in the summer while there are enough insects to feed on and then fly thousands of miles as far south as South America during the winter. They can be identified by their black and white tuxedo or their song, sometimes compared to the sounds of R2-D2 from Star Wars.

The ruby-throated hummingbird, which weighs nearly two nickels, takes a non-stop flight that takes several days straight across the Gulf of Mexico before returning to Vermont.

Other birds, such as Eastern Bluebirds or American Robins, are short-range migratory birds, which means they will move south as often as they need to—they may stay in Vermont year-round or travel as far as southern New England or down the Atlantic.

Morin said there is also a risk of birds “expelling” Vermont due to habitat loss. He pointed to Bicknell’s thrush, which nests in the state’s high-altitude forests, noting that if the trees were depleted, there would be nowhere for the species to nest.

Warmer temperatures from climate change may cause higher elevation forests to become less densely populated, said Alexandra Kosiba, assistant professor in the department of forestry at the University of Vermont Extension.

However, she cautioned, it is difficult to predict how climate change will eventually affect trees, especially because forests are “incredibly resilient”. Ultimately, she said, it will depend on which trees are able to adapt and how successful regeneration is.

Morin also worries about how climate change will affect the birds’ food sources.

“What we see locally, the insects may start to come out of their winter hibernation earlier, while the birds may arrive later. So you could have this separation of natural events. We’re not entirely sure how that affects things,” Morin said.

Some measures Vermonters can take to help birds include placing feeders more than 4 feet apart or farther than 10 feet from a window to reduce collisions with birds. Morin also recommends cleaning bird feeders every few weeks to eliminate harmful bacteria and viruses and keeping cats—the leading cause of bird deaths in North America—indoors.

He noted that growing native plants rather than non-native invasive plants is important for providing a thriving habitat for insects — which ultimately helps feed the birds.

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