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THROUGH THE WOODS: The 2023 Great Backyard Bird Count

Robin eating sumac. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

FEBRUARY 17-20, 2023 is the Great Backyard Bird Count, the joint project of the National Audubon Society and Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Consider participating and start thinking about where to bird. Today, as I write I am facing our old farm field and can catch the movement of any birds who happen by. It is a beautiful sunny day right now, and the birds are out and about along with the deer. All are feeding in anticipation of the predicted winter break of warm weather and bare ground free of snow.

When I was growing up all the local farmers enjoyed watching the things of nature around them. There are often good birds still to be seen near farms like this nice stand of staghorn sumac being ravaged by a mixed flock of hungry European starlings and American robins. A commonly asked question is what do birds in our area eat during the winter season, and sumac fruit is one of the foods available for many species. It is called staghorn because the backlit summer branches of this tall shrub look like the velvet stage of deer antlers. We crazy kids used to take the bark-less remains of their fallen branches and charge at each other as great stags will do. Fortunately, the clashing attacks resulted in no permanent injuries, and the activity built young muscles and lasting memories of the characteristics of the sumac.

The fruits grow at the ends of the branches and by fall the clusters mature into beautiful red, cone-shaped forms that point to the sky. There are 50 or more small fruits per cluster, making a long-lasting and nutritious store of winter food. The Native Americans made a drink from them. It is not bad tasting, but the many insects living in the clusters are almost impossible to eliminate and are a big turnoff for me!

It is nice that they are a turn-on for woodpeckers that industriously dig them out to eat. I have met landscapers who eliminate sumac as a weed. They do pop up all over open areas because the birds replant them through the seeds left in their droppings, but they are beautiful umbrella-shaped shrub forms and are a nice addition to a “great backyard” for birds.

There was little traffic on this narrow road so I sat for at least a half hour and watched and photographed the birds. The robins dug their toes into the fruit and ate and ate. I was completely ignored during the process. There have been more and larger flocks of robins over the past week so maybe these were hungry new arrivals from down south. We also have robins that winter over in our area if the weather isn’t too bad and there is enough food. Birds will feed on apples that remain on the trees and often flock to orchards. Anyone can add their “backyard” bird counts from any area, just log on to the website at There is a video about the count and data may be entered for a while after the count. If you do not have a computer, ask a friend or family member to make the entries.

This information is important to track where the birds are located at this time of year and under what types of conditions. Birds are extremely important indicators of the status of our environment. Just like the canary in the mine, if the bird is healthy and happy, so are we!

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