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Where did all the birds go in Oklahoma? Winter storm might have killed many of them, biologist says

A pelican flies from a frozen part of Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City on Feb. 16. Pelicans and other birds struggled to survive the recent Arctic blast. [SARAH PHIPPS/THE OKLAHOMAN]
A pelican flies from a frozen part of Lake Hefner in Oklahoma City on Feb. 16. Pelicans and other birds struggled to survive the recent Arctic blast. [SARAH PHIPPS/THE OKLAHOMAN]

Where did the birds go?

My wife and I were excited to see bluebirds in our Edmond backyard for the first time during the Arctic weather earlier this month, the same backyard I've mowed for the past 33 years.

Four bluebirds were attacking our backyard bird feeder on one bitterly cold day. Mark Howery, a wildlife diversity biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, said those must have been desperate birds, because bluebirds don't normally come to bird feeders.

Howery speculates the bluebirds may have been finding some exposed sunflower seeds from chipped hulls in our bird feeder.

"A bluebird's bill is not really built for cracking open sunflower seeds but they could eat sunflower kernels if they could find them," he said.

In addition to bluebirds, our backyard feeder was being hammered by cardinals, bluejays, finches, chickadees, juncos and even robins. It was a sight to behold, but since it has thawed, the birds have vanished.

Robins were the talk of Oklahoma City as they were swarming urban neighborhoods to find food during the deep freeze, targeting shrubs like holly bushes as an emergency food source. But now that the snow has melted, the birds have mostly dispersed.

"They are still around, just not as many," Howery said of the robins. "They are not coming into yards as much. They are starting to spread out in rural areas. One thing I think that has helped the robins is the ground is wet after the snow melt and that makes it easier for them to get insects and worms out of the ground. That's their preferred food."

Robins are another species that don't normally come to bird feeders, Howery said, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

Howery speculates that, depending on the species, 10 to 50% of birds in the area may have perished in the winter storm.

"That's just a guess," he said. "There isn't any way to know."

Howery has received many reports from people of finding dead robins, dead waterbirds, dead juncos, dead wrens, dead bluebirds and even some dead ducks. At Lake Hefner, white pelicans and cormorants were among the victims.

"It wasn't just the cold and wasn't just the snow," Howery said. "It was the double whammy of cold weather plus the snow covering up their food."

The October ice storm was a factor, as well, as it knocked food from trees onto the ground, Howery said. Then, when the snow came, it covered up the food, he said.

"I think there are a lot of birds that died across various species, but there are also a lot of survivors," Howery said. "We are seeing them. I am real grateful for that."

Cooped up in my house when the state was frozen over, backyard bird watching was my favorite pastime. It was disappointing when the birds disappeared, and Howery said it would likely take another Arctic blast or winter drought to attract so many birds to my backyard again.

The bird activity at Howery's feeders is only about 20% compared to the week of the storm. Although I am not wishing for another cold snap like the last one, I would like to keep the birds visiting my yard.

Howery said the best way to attract birds is to plant trees or shrubs, like holly bushes, which produce berries for food and can provide nesting cover. Also, keep a source of water available for birds and provide food. He recommends using black oiled sunflower seeds in hanging feeders and putting millet seed on or near the ground where birds can find it, like in a dish or on concrete.

While birds are not coming to feeders as often as they were, there are still some birds camping out at feeders and eating their fill, Howery said.

"I think there are a lot of thin birds out there that are still looking for food to put on body weight," he said.

With spring right around the corner, there will be plenty of bird watching opportunities in the coming weeks. Howery said now is the time to put up bluebird boxes as bluebirds will be looking for nesting sites by mid-March and chickadees will soon follow.

Purple martins usually start showing back up in Oklahoma after wintering in Brazil in the first week of March. In early April, scissor-tailed flycatchers and hummingbirds return from the wintering grounds in Central America and South America along with other species.

"The floodgates open up at the first of April," Howery said of the spring migration.

Howery said more people than usual are calling him lately with questions about birds.

"Between the COVID pandemic and this storm, there probably are a few more bird watchers," he said. "There certainly seems to be a lot of interest."

Young alligators succumb to freeze

Alligators in Oklahoma made national news during the winter storm when photos of the gators lifting their snouts above the icy surface at the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area in McCurtain County went viral on social media.

The wetlands froze and the alligators lifted their snouts out of an air hole in a technique biologists called icing or snorkeling to help the animals breath. The alligators went into the hibernation-like behavior called brumation, slowing their heart rate, breathing and metabolism to survive.

State wildlife officials reported all of the adult alligators living in the Red Slough survived, but a few young gators perished. About 100 alligators are believed to reside in the Red Slough.

Grand Lake gets a boost in paddlefish genetics

Biologists with the Wildlife Department have transported some small young male paddlefish from record-breaking Keystone Lake to Grand Lake. Last summer, a world record paddlefish was caught at Keystone along with several other big spoonbills.

Keystone has the bigger fish, but Grand Lake and its tributaries have more fishing access and thus more anglers. State wildlife officials hope the spawners from Keystone Lake will improve the genetics in Grand, possibly resulting in record-breaking fish in the future.

The transported paddlefish were marked with a green band. Anglers are encouraged to put back green-banded paddlefish to help the population improve even further.

In collaboration with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Kansas Parks and Tourism, the Wildlife Department also collected broodstock from Keystone and stocked the paddlefish in a Kansas reservoir upstream of Grand Lake.

Reporter Ed Godfrey looks for stories that impact your life. Be it news, outdoors, sports — you name it, he wants to report it. Have a story idea? Contact him at or on Twitter @EdGodfrey. Support his work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today.

Ed Godfrey

Ed Godfrey was born in Muskogee and raised in Stigler. He has worked at The Oklahoman for 25 years. During that time, he has worked a myriad of beats for The Oklahoman including both the federal and county courthouse in Oklahoma City for more... Read more ›