Moore: Water foul foraging behavior in winter
This past week I received an interesting email from which I quote, “Hi Eric...I go for a walk every morning at sunrise. This past week or so, I’ve observed birds (looks like geese) flying “north” in a large “V”. Am I the only one thinking they’re headed in the wrong direction? Please advise.” My response to this question included the following information.
Many of the large water fowl that winter in Prescott roost each night on either Willow Lake or Watson Lake. Spending the night floating out on the open water is a safe place for them—far away from predators such as coyotes, and bobcats.
However, during the day, many of the ducks and geese leave the lakes to go forage for food—mostly grasses. Species such as Canada geese and American wigeons are like bird lawnmowers! They feed down on the ground, walking around eating green shoots of grasses and weeds.
Each morning flocks of ducks and geese leave the lake in search of food, flying in all directions. Some go east, others south, and some go north. As I spend time bird watching in the Prescott area in winter, I see ducks and geese in a variety of locations around town—mostly at golf courses! Anyone who golfs can attest to the large numbers of ducks at Hassayampa, Prescott Lakes and Antelope Hills golf courses.
The greens on golf courses provide a winter food source for coots, wigeons, and geese. After a long day of foraging away from the lakes, the birds then return to Willow or Watson to spend the night.
Another destination for these water fowl is other lakes. It is not uncommon for them to do some lake hopping from one day to another. I frequently visit Granite Basin Lake at the base of Granite Mountain during the winter months. It is a small lake. Very few birds spend the night at this location, but during the day the number and variety of ducks swells.
I suspect birds like a little variety, (it would get boring to eat at the same restaurant every day!) so they visit other lakes and spend the day foraging there and then return to the larger lakes to roost for the night.
Speaking of water… As we move into winter, it is important to remember the importance of providing open sources of water for birds when we get freezing temperatures. Species such as robins and bluebirds are heavily dependent on water sources. Providing water in your yard will increase both the quantity and variety of birds you can see in your yard—even in winter.
Using either a heated bird bath or a deicer in an existing bird bath will keep the water open and accessible to the birds when temperatures get below freezing. Open water sources are used for drinking and also for bathing, even in the dead of winter. Clean feathers have a greater insulating capacity than matted feathers, which is important for winter survival.
To this day I have in my mind a very vivid memory of seeing a male Anna’s hummingbird bathing in our yard several years ago. It was January first, and the temperature was in the twenties. The hummingbird was perched on a rock in our recirculating water feature and was bathing vigorously.
Personally, I can’t stand cold water, and wouldn’t even consider bathing outside when it is in the 20’s. But, here was this little bird, weighing only 4.4 grams, bathing on New Year’s Day. This experience underscores the importance of open water to wildlife—especially birds—in winter!
Until next week, Happy Birding!
Eric Moore is the owner of Jay’s Bird Barn, with two locations in northern Arizona – Prescott and Flagstaff. Eric has been an avid birder for over 50 years. If you have questions about wild birds that you would like discussed in future articles, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.