Cape May Birds Surviving Record February 2015 Cold

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Cape May, NJ – While Cape May has escaped the incessant blizzards of early 2015, our birds are struggling. Record cold temperatures on several days in late February, winds in excess of 30 to 40 miles per hour, and six inches of snow have pushed Cape May birds to the brink.

In general, it isn’t the cold that kills birds at this time of year. Instead, it is starvation caused by the combination of cold and wind, along with food being fairly unavailable beneath the snow.

With lots of food, most birds can survive even the most brutal temperatures. But when they cannot find enough food, they gradually burn their fat and then starve.

Cape May is usually safe for wintering birds because temperatures are often mild and snow does not last long. In other words, birds can find lots of food and survive through the toughest months.

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The most visible signs that there is trouble in bird land this winter include the large number of birds that are foraging along roadways and at bird feeders. In more normal winters, these birds would mostly be spread out through the farm fields, yards, forests, swamps and even in the dunes.

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White-throated Sparrows are typical Cape May winter birds. These days, the sparrows along with woodcock, robins,  cardinals and others  line the short sections of New England Road and Sunset Boulevard, where there is bare dirt or grassy surfaces that are not covered with snow, desperately hunting for something to eat..

Roadsides may provide some of the best feeding opportunities in Cape May under these conditions. However, with birds packed into very small areas, food runs out quickly, as birds compete for meager supplies.

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Woodcock are particularly dependent on plowed roadsides for worms and insects.  But it’s a dangerous way to get a meal. Foraging along roadsides increases risk of being hit by cars or taken by hawks or other predators. For example, during a short drive along some of these roads February 20th, we saw several dead woodcock, cardinals and sparrows.

Backyard Bird Feeders

Backyard feeders can make the difference in survival for birds that will use them.  Since birds like juncos and sparrows prefer feeding on the ground, a good practice is to spread bird seed on the ground as well as keeping hanging feeders well stocked.

With a thaw quickly approaching, snow will be melting over much of the landscape,  unlocking much of the food that has been unavailable.

The good news is that those birds that can make it through the toughest part of this brutal winter will likely make it to spring.

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About Paul Kerlinger

Paul Kerlinger, Ph.D. is a scientist, author and nationally known expert on bird migration. He's done extensive studies on hawks, Snowy Owls and neotropical song birds. Kerlinger is the former director of the Cape May Bird Observatory, His books include How Birds Migrate and Flight Strategies of Migrating Hawks. He's an ardent fly fisherman and organic vegetable gardener.