Several years ago I took my second trip to Australia and this time drove up the Gold Coast from Sydney to past Brisbane and to the beginning of the Great Barrier Reef. Along the way we stopped at the Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, basically a zoo. An interesting place where you could pet the koalas and feed the kangaroos and wallabies and even take a dingo for a walk but of course the most interesting creatures were the birds. At 8 am, almost exactly, every day, a large flock of hundreds of wild Rainbow Lorikeets descends on the zoo for feeding by the visitors. Gorgeous birds acting like pets. Here’s a video. They leave a short time later but at 5 pm, about closing time, they come again for another treat. Apparently the birds learned this from a person who used to own the property before it became a zoo many years ago. He fed them at 8 and 5 and the birds learned to visit and passed on the culture through the generations.
Similar patterns can be seen at your bird feeder. Typically, birds show three activity periods during a winter day at a feeder. Early morning is the first peak because they have not fed all night and need to refuel, especially if it has been a cold night. In the middle of the day there might be might be a second peak, but weaker than the morning feeding, mostly consisting of small or juvenile birds that are avoiding competition from the larger, mature birds who are our getting food from natural sources. At the end of the day there is another peak with birds stuffing themselves with reserves to get them through the night.
You have probably noticed that there are times of the day where there are few or no birds at your feeders. Why don’t the birds stay all day and stuff themselves? Well, feeding at a bird feeder provides food, of course, but it also attracts predators such as Sharp-shinned or Cooper’s Hawks. To eat at a feeder is a trade-off between getting a lot of food in a short period of time and being exposed to predation. Feeding in the early morning and late afternoon is worth the exposure because of the great need for nutrition at those times. The remainder of the day they can feed on wild foods more leisurely with less risk of predation.
Generally, birds develop a feeding routine that they follow every day but a change in the predictability of the food supply or the weather will change birds’ feeding habits. If it’s cold the birds will require more food. If the barometric pressure drops, which means a low pressure center and stormy weather, birds will feed more often in anticipation of bad weather. Watch your feeder for patterns of bird behavior and see what you notice.
True story: I have a friend named Carl who feeds outdated bread to crows in his backyard every day. They arrive at the same time in the morning and ask for the food by calling him by his name: “Carl, Carl, Carl.”