Who doesn’t love to wake to a sunny morning filled with birdsong? Birds fill our neighbourhood with their voices – morning songs and sunset tunes. Birds are like jewels in a garden – flashes of colour and light as they go streaking by. Feng shui even has a special term for the auspicious energy birds bring to your space. Yet between the mass destruction of their habitat, elimination of their migration corridors, herbicide and pesticide use, their water and food sources tainted with these man-made poisons, the exponential spread of cities, and the death toll taken by all windows (suburban homes and skyscrapers are equally bad) migrating and song bird populations are plummeting. Many species have seen drops in numbers between 40-50% in the past 2-3 decades. If you have the opportunity, watch Songbird SOS.
A National Wildlife Federation article highlighted the three most important things YOU can do to help local birds:
- Eliminate pesticides and herbicides from your property because 96% of terrestrial birds rear their young on insects they find on local plants
- Stop the cycle of breeding in feral cats and stop free-roaming cats (get all your cats fixed and keep them inside) Cats (and dogs) are introduced/invasive species to North America and local birds never developed evolutionary defenses against this prolific but charming predator. (Cats and off-leash dogs can decimate ground nesters.)
- Add native plants to your garden because their pollen, seeds and insects are the foods native birds need. Native trees are particularly important to increase biodiversity.
Lower on the list is feeding (and participating in monitoring programs for) your local birds. Fall is a great time to begin feeding at backyard feeders. While there is a vocal group who are vehemently against feeding; citing it as unnatural, often GMO and grown with pesticides, and breeding dependency, there is nothing wrong with helping local species get through the winter.
You might feed throughout the year, or feed through the winter ‘famine’ months of December to April. Food is easily found by foraging into late November in our area but new food doesn’t become available until late April when the snow is all gone and new plants and insects provide healthy meals. In preparation for this period, a good time to set out a bird feeder is in mid-October to early November since this is the time when birds flock, settle into their wintering grounds, and find reliable food sources for the cold months ahead. A smart idea is to set up your feeder now and invite birds to your garden with seed, and when the snows come you can increase what you provide or provide a more diverse range of feeds.
Please Be Kind: Don’t begin feeding for winter if you won’t continue it until the end of April. If birds come to your feeders, they have chosen you as a primary source of winter food and they would face great hardship if you were to stop feeding mid-season.
This diagram from Feederwatch.org provides a simple guide to the favourite foods of common local backyard birds.
The variety of foods include peanuts, nyger, mealworms, suet, fruit, sunflower and other seeds.
There are four types of feeders because different species prefer varied styles of foraging:
- Platforms or flat baskets with ample drainage feed ground foragers at a elevated level to avoid seed getting soggy and mouldy while keeping birds out of predators’ range. Mourning doves, juncos, blue jays and cardinals favour platform feeding.
- Tube feeders are popular for keeping the seed dry and feeding through the smaller openings and twig-like perches. These feeders are very popular with small sparrows, goldfinches and chickadees.
- The larger hopper feeders offer a roof protection in many cases and draw birds like blue jays, nuthatches, cardinals and many sparrows. The size of the ledge offered controls which birds will use this feeder – I use one which accommodates larger birds such as blue jays and cardinals as well as the nuthatches, chickadees, and a variety of sparrows.
- The most specialized feeder is the suet feeder – seed blend ‘cakes’ that feed high-nutrition to insect eaters. The best quality ones are made with beef fat which is almost the exact nutrition structure gained through worms and is in demand through the coldest months when quality protein is scarce. These draw woodpeckers, blue jays, chickadees and nuthatches.
You may want to use all four feeder types in the ‘famine months’ of winter to draw the most number of birds. Keep your feeders clean and healthy by washing them periodically with hot soapy water and a vinegar rinse.
Water is vital for birds year round and whether it’s a safe-depth fountain, bubbling sculpture, birdbath or bowl, a garden offering water will draw twice as many birds. Birds hear the sound of water from far away and will be drawn to it. Shallow water where birds can drink without getting wet is most helpful in cold months.
If you’ve provided food and water, then shelter is the last part of the equation. There is nothing as protective as a cedar, juniper or other evergreens to provide shelter from wind and snow, predators on wing and the ground, and a place from which to go back and forth to the feeders. Other shrubs, trees and bushes will be useful in all seasons as stopping points and nesting spots.
Feeding birds is a winter tradition and source of joy for people of all ages – it’s a simple way of giving back and when done responsibility can make a difference to local biodiversity.
Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here
Project Feederwatch (Bird Studies Canada)
Feederwatch – interactive tool of which birds eat which foods
Birds of Toronto (Biodiversity Series Guide)
Winter Bird Feeding (pdf – Cornell Lab of Ornithology)
Bird Feedings ~ © 2015 Natasha G