When I moved back to Savannah at the end of 1998, the winter bird event that backyard bird feeding enthusiasts anxiously awaited was the arrival of the American goldfinches.
Generally, the finches showed up sometime between early November and Christmas, arriving in large flocks to chow down on "black gold" - the imported and rather expensive nyjer or thistle seed. Since goldfinches are party birds, preferring to feed together in large flocks, my dad put out two finch condos that could each accommodate 24 birds. Most years, all his condos were rented until mid-April, and he was convinced he was making a fortune.
Then, little by little, the picture began changing. The goldfinches arrived later. More of them seemed to be staying farther north in the winter. They began to turn their beaks up at even the freshest nyjer, preferring to snack on sunflower seed, sunflower chips, and safflower seed. Not to say they wouldn't eat nyjer, but it was no longer their first and only choice.
This season, in December, one of our customers came in with the usual question.
"Where are my finches?"
I took him over to our large-screen TV and pulled up the web cam focused on the feeders at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y. Sure enough, their feeders were covered with American goldfinches dressed in their winter drab tan and black.
While some people are now reporting that they have goldfinches this winter, neither my dad nor I have put out our finch feeders.
Then, around 2007, we began to notice another change taking place in the bird world. It had been unusual to find a Baltimore oriole here during the winter. Mostly this species migrated through in the spring on its way to breeding territories farther north, before heading back each fall to wintering grounds in Central and South America. In January 2008, one of our customers from Talahi Island came in talking about the Baltimore orioles and hummingbirds that were drinking at her nectar feeder. I asked if I could come see for myself, and she graciously allowed me to come to watch and photograph her birds.
Soon folks in Ardsley Park were talking about their wintering orioles. Gradually, the birds moved to other parts of the city. Last year, at Wild Birds Unlimited, we began making a list of customers who were hosting orioles. Folks in Pooler, Magnolia Park, Richmond Hill, Coffee Bluff, Guyton, Wilmington Island, Ardsley Park, Isle of Hope and Skidaway Island were all feasting their eyes on the decidedly eye-candy black-and-orange male, as well as the less striking but still lovely females and juveniles.
This year, particularly during the snow event, the reports came in fast and furious. It seems like more and more Baltimore orioles are camping out in coastal Georgia and South Carolina for the winter.
So what are these orioles eating? The reports vary, but grape jelly is at the top of the list. They also slurp up nectar, snack on sunflower chips, and positively gorge themselves on live mealworms. Now, instead of spending his money on nyjer seed for the finches, my dad has to keep stocked-up on grape jelly and mealworms for the orioles.
Is it bad for them to eat all that sugar? Keep in mind that orioles are insect and fruit eaters. Jelly provides a quick source of energy and warmth during the winter cold, but you'll also find them scrounging in the camellia bushes for the bugs that are attracted to the blossoms.
How, you might ask, should you offer your birds grape jelly? Any small dish will work. The feeder shouldn't be too big, as you don't want the orioles wallowing in the jelly and getting their feathers all sticky. One of my favorites is the three-in-one oriole feeder. It looks like a flat saucer with a base that can hold nectar, a top with indentations to hold jelly, and a way to impale an orange on the hanger.
One of our customers prefers the no-fuss method. After she eats her orange for breakfast, she fills the empty rind with grape jelly and puts it out in a dish. Once the jelly is gone, she tosses the used orange and replaces it with a new one the next morning.
Orioles aren't the only birds that enjoy a sweet treat. Other jelly patrons include yellow-rumped and orange-crowned warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, gray catbirds, northern mockingbirds, house finches, and tufted titmice. This year my Talahi Island friend is hosting a rare-in-winter yellow-breasted chat at her oriole feeder while my parents have a small flock of painted buntings staying around to snack on their favorite white millet. Yep, the bird times, they are a-changin'! Good birding!
Bird enthusiast Diana Churchill can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.