I received a press release last week amidst all the Christmas Bird Counts stating that 3000 fewer birds were observed during the Christmas Bird Count in Central Park, NY and  I thought the headline was a bit alarmist, but then again that’s what the headline on a press release is supposed to do to get your attention.  Here’s a quote:

“Audubon’s Birds & Climate Change data proved birds are not Climate Skeptics, but already voted on this issue decades ago with their wings, many moving their summer ranges on average a miles north every year. Warm temperatures this autumn may have played a role in a low count in Central Park this year, which tallied 3, 286 birds – 3,000 fewer than last year. ”

Some of this language makes me gag–I’m mean really…”birds voted with their wings” (I just threw up a little bit in my mouth typing that). Not that I deny the climate is changing, I just dislike flowery, over simplified language like that.

But this is a common question–I used to get it regularly when I worked at the bird store and I still get it a few times via email in the winter. What does it mean when birds are suddenly gone from your yard in the winter time?  Is something sinister going on at Central Park?  Well, it’s hard to say with a one day count.  Over several years, Christmas Bird Count data is useful, but one day in and of itself may not paint the full picture.

Sometimes it’s seasonal movement. Birds could be shifting, moving around based on available food resources and weather fronts. Was the Central Park CBC held on a day when there was a transition of bird flocks?  Tough to say, but what about when birds disappear from a backyard?

Sometimes it can be a change in habitat. A large removal of buckthorn or any other trees can cause birds to abandon a yard. Buckthorn (though invasive and non native) provides both food and shelter and when it’s removed, it will keep birds away that like heavy cover and berries but the open space may eventually attract different birds.

Keep in mind that change of habitat can include construction. Any major remodeling going on to your home? Is a neighbor undergoing a major renovation? The noise and the change of  the house shape can also be enough to keep birds away.

If it’s a case of birds abandoning a feeding station, it could be that the food offered is old: did you get that seed at an unbelievable discount–chances are it’s old and if your neighbor is offering fresher fare the birds will visit them. Is your seed not what the birds in your area want, for example is it more millet than sunflower?  Is your feeder dirty and is the seed moldy?  That not only can keep birds away but could cause disease.

Sometimes birds disappear from an area. If that happens, try to look at it from a bird’s point of view. Can food, water and shelter be found?  Is it temporary? Take more than a day or even a week to understand before you hit the panic button.


Written by Birdchick
Sharon Stiteler was given a Peterson Field Guide to Birds when she was seven years old and snapped. She loves birds - it’s just the way she’s wired. Since 1997, she has made it her goal to get paid to go birding. She runs the popular birding blog, Birdchick.com, and has been in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and on NBC Nightly News as well as making regular appearances on Twin Cities’ TV and radio stations. She’s a professional speaker and story-teller and her writing can be found in several publications including WildBird Magazine, Outdoor News, and Birding Business. She wrote the books 1001 Secrets Every Birder Should Know, Disapproving Rabbits and City Birds/Country Birds. When she’s not digiscoping, tweeting or banding birds, she’s a part-time park ranger and award-winning beekeeper.