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Explore our latest coverage of environmental issues, climate change and more.

Levin: Climate For The Birds

Cynthia Crawford,
If you noticed unusually large numbers of Juncos at your bird feeder this year, you weren't alone.

Vermont’s weather has always been unpredictable, but as climate change brings new and even more uncertain conditions, I’ve taken to tracking weather patterns by the appearance or absence of dooryard birds. Of course, I could always turn on the weather channel, but I’m rather partial to a piece of wisdom from Bob Dylan, who wrote that “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” So my current practice, which is simple enough, is to watch my feeders.

Juncos are nattily feathered gray and white sparrows that forage through leaf litter in quest of seeds and insects. In past years, they’d move through my yard between mid-October and late-November, and leave again for parts further south at the first significant snowfall. Then in early April, they’d return from their wintering grounds and reassemble beneath my bird feeders. A few would nest along my driveway; but most would move along to higher ground - or farther north to Maine, Quebec, Labrador, and beyond, to the lip of the Arctic.

But this year’s been different. A bumper crop of wild food and a lack of early snow kept migrating juncos in northern New England all winter. After each significant snowfall, they’d reappear in the cherry tree, on the driveway, along the stone wall, under the feeder in my yard, or wherever I’d scattered sunflower seeds.

In December, as snow accumulated and the temperature dropped like an anchor, the juncos stayed closer than ever to my front yard; most snow-covered mornings, in the company of a tree sparrow or two, a dozen or more would comb the ground for spilt seeds. When everything melted they vanished into the woods – until the day when a half-inch of freezing rain and crusted snow limited their access to food.

Then at least one hundred chaotic juncos - in the company of fourteen other species - suddenly descended into my yard, where they remained until the ground unlocked several days later. I can still hear a few trilling in the woods, but I haven’t seen one under the feeders in weeks.

Birds respond to weather and concentrations of food. And when the game changes, life can be an ill-timed, more unpredictable adventure for many. Some may still prosper. But others... not so much.

Ted Levin is a nature writer and photographer. His latest book is America's Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake, University of Chicago Press, May, 2016.
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