Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Could feeding become a stronger instinct than migrating?

By STACEY COLE October 19. 2018 8:02PM

The nuthatch's back is a blue-grey, and it has a white breast and large black eyes on a white face. (Courtesy/Cheryl LeBlanc)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on April 8, 1972.

Man has the power for good or evil — that we have known for generations. But with his increasing knowledge it is possible to control his actions — and more and more man appears to be attempting to do just that. Let us hope he continues to remember that Mother Nature can be a great friend, if well treated.

As a farmer, I know only too well that Mother Nature can be a hard taskmaster. She can wash away a goodly amount of topsoil if man has made it easy by poor tillage practices. Here at the farm we have plowed across the hillside so that run-off would be slowed — and we have added organic wastes and used green manure crops to build topsoil. We even hesitate to harrow on windy days to stop wind erosion, even though the time to do so has come.

Yes, there are many things we can do to keep our land, but I did not intend this talk to become a lecture. Rather, I intended to point out that some things we do have an effect on wild things.

Most of you know of the profound change in the numbers of herring gulls as a direct result of man’s actions. First there were many of these birds, and then man disrupted their natural feeding places and the birds declined. Next man came to use the rivers for dumping places for garbage and offal. He spawned open dumps, and the gulls found favor with these easy ways to get food. The result was an increasing of herring gulls — so many, in fact, that they began to take over nesting sites of other species of birds on offshore islands — to the point where some of these other birds declined in numbers. Lately with the increase in proper handling of wastes, the covering of garbage and the lessening of river pollution, there is a good possibility that herring gulls may once again go into decline.

Some years ago there was an ‘invasion’ of slate-colored juncos. It appears that because so many of us feed so much to attract wild birds to our back yards, many of them stayed and did not travel back to the northland for the summer. Cardinals and titmice have extended their range northward for the same reason, it is believed. Evening grosbeaks, always an erractic bird, are now nesting in New Hampshire when only a short time ago few, if any, did.

But what brought about this discussion?

Last Sunday morning something unexpected happened to put me on this track. As you know, this winter we have had perhaps the greatest ‘invasion’ of pine siskins ever to take place — certainly so in my memory. And when I saw one of these tiny, striped birds gathering pieces of clothesline from a frayed knot and head for the pine forest back of the henhouse, I began to wonder — will it happen to the siskins, too? Will some of these birds find feeding instinct stronger than migratory instinct, and nest here? How nice that would be. It would, however, put a stop to my writing every few years that if you see a siskin this winter, “Take a good look, for it may be many seasons before you see one again.” I suspect most of the siskins will indeed return to the Canadian north woods, their ‘natural’ home, but at least we can hope.

Perhaps all this wishful thinking has resulted from the fact that we have had our pair of cardinals all winter and are hoping they will feel so well treated they will nest near the farm. Oh well, I guess that’s really what dreams are made of.

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Nesting nuthatches were told of by a reader in Plymouth who wrote:

“A pair of nuthatches made a nest this past spring under the house roof. I don’t see how it was possible for them to pry up the roof, but by constant pecking they did. I saw and heard them do this so I am wondering if this is one of the same ones who comes to the feeder (March 3). I also saw him go from the feeder up into the hole in the side of the roof.”

I am sure it must be one of those she’s feeding and her letter reminded me of the pair I wrote of one time that nested in our cellar, sneaking through a partially broken window pane before I had gotten around to fix it. It didn’t get fixed until late fall.

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at

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