The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department is recommending that Vermonters wait until the beginning of December to put up their bird feeders to avoid attracting bears.
Although bird feeding is an exciting way to get up close and personal with the neighborhood chickadees and cardinals, Doug Morin, Vermont Fish & Wildlife’s bird project leader, said that feeders aren’t essential to helping birds survive the winter. As such, people should avoid the temptation to put feeders outside until bears have begun to hibernate.
Morin also noted that if people see a bear during its dormant period — from December to April — they should take down their bird feeders for at least one week. If a bear isn’t able to find food, it will be more likely to return to its winter den.
“People should do everything they can to prevent a bear from finding food at their home, because once this happens the bear may return for years continuing to check for food,” Jaclyn Comeau, Vermont Fish & Wildlife’s wildlife biologist and black bear project leader, wrote in an email to VTDigger.
Comeau said that if Vermonters have a “chronic history with bears foraging in their yard,” they should wait until there’s at least a foot of snow on the ground before putting a bird feeder outside.
“Historically, bears are known to come out of their hibernation during warm periods in the winter. So it's not crazy if you see a bear in January,” Morin said.
Bear sightings during dormancy, however, are happening more often, according to Morin, in part due to warming temperatures from the effects of climate change.
While Vermonters will likely see the same cast of avian characters at their feeders this year, climate change is also affecting migratory patterns among the state’s bird populations.
It has caused some birds to fly “farther and farther north” in Vermont during the spring and summertime, Morin said.
Most of the approximately 300 species of birds that have been recorded in Vermont are migratory, he noted. For example, bobolinks, which Morin characterized as one of the most “charismatic grassland birds” in Vermont, raise their young in the summer while there are enough insects to feed on and then fly thousands of miles to the southernmost tip of South America during the winter. They can be identified by their white and black tuxedo or their song, sometimes compared to the sounds of R2-D2 from Star Wars.
Ruby-throated hummingbirds, which weigh the same as about two nickels, fly a nonstop, multiple-day trip straight across the Gulf of Mexico before returning to Vermont.
Other birds, such as eastern bluebirds or American robins, are short-distance migratory birds, meaning they will move just as far south as they have to. They may stay in Vermont year-round or travel to southern New England or down the Atlantic.
There’s also the risk of birds “moving out” of Vermont due to habitat loss, Morin said. He mentioned the Bicknell’s thrush, which nests in the state’s high-elevation forests, noting that if trees become depleted there will be “no place for those species to nest.”
Alexandra Kosiba, assistant professor of forestry at the University of Vermont Extension, said that warmer temperatures brought on by climate change may cause higher-elevation forests to become less populated.
She cautioned, however, that it is challenging to predict how climate change will ultimately affect trees, especially because forests are “incredibly resilient.” She said that it will ultimately depend on which trees are able to adapt and how successful regeneration might be.
Morin also worries about how climate change will affect birds’ food sources.
“What we're seeing is locally, insects may start coming out of their winter dormancy earlier, whereas the birds may arrive later. So you can have this disjunction between natural events. And we're not entirely sure how that may affect things,” Morin said.
Some measures that Vermonters can take to help bird populations include placing feeders closer than 4 feet or farther than 10 feet from a window in order to reduce bird collisions. 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 — inside.
He noted that planting native plants instead of non-native invasive plants is important to provide a flourishing habitat for insects, which ultimately helps feed birds.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misrendered a quotation from Jaclyn Comeau.
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