White-throated Sparrows have arrived at my feeders in Peterborough.
White-throated Sparrows have arrived at my feeders in Peterborough.
White-throated Sparrows have arrived at my feeders in Peterborough.
When it comes to feeding birds, it’s important to be skeptical of ‘conventional wisdom’. There are a lot of myths out there, some of which might discourage people from putting out feeders. No one with an interest in birds should be missing out on such an entertaining and convenient way to enjoy contact with nature. Feeding wild birds also serves to develop a greater understanding and appreciation for the environment in general. It’s impossible to care about birds without becoming concerned about issues such as climate change and habitat destruction.
The following list highlights some of areas of concern that people have when it comes to feeding birds. I have also included some suggestions to make bird feeding more successful and enjoyable.
1. Over-dependence on feeders. Birds do not depend on any one food source. They need a greater variety of food than feeders alone can provide. For example, studies with chickadees have demonstrated that even removing a feeder in mid‑winter does not result in greater flock mortality than would normally occur in flocks that do not visit feeders. Birds are well able to find other sources of food if feeders are unavailable. Putting out food for the birds can be important during extreme weather events, but birds will not starve if the feeders aren’t filled.
2. Impact on migration: People sometimes fear that feeding birds during the fall migration period might somehow stop them from flying south. Feeders will not keep birds from migrating. Migration is controlled by instinct and by external factors like daylight and weather. In fact, your feeders are providing an energy boost to help them survive these long journeys. I witness the allure of migration every October when hoards of white‑throated sparrows visit our yard. Despite a ready supply of black oil sunflower seed and millet scattered liberally on the ground, all of the birds depart by the end of the month.
3. Hawks at feeders: It’s true that feeding birds might attract a Cooper’s hawk or even a barred owl to your yard. Personally, I feel privileged to witness the drama, even if a mourning dove or house finch pays the price. The raptor’s presence indicates that the food chain is healthy and working as it should. Raptors are also fascinating birds to observe in their own right. If predation becomes too much of a problem, you can simply take your feeders down for a few days and thereby disperse the smaller birds.
4. When to feed: Many people make the mistake of waiting until winter has arrived before putting up their feeders. The greatest bird diversity at feeders actually occurs in the spring and fall. In early October, for example, a dozen or more species may turn up on a given day. The same can be true in late April. I usually start putting out sunflower seed and millet in late September, when large numbers southbound white‑throated and white‑crowned sparrows are passing through. They are easily attracted to our yards if seed is available on the ground. These sparrows come through again in late April and early May on their way north. Rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings may also show up at feeders in May and are a real treat to see. Grosbeaks are attracted to sunflower seed, while the buntings prefer nyjer seed. By putting out food in the spring and fall, you are also providing a welcome source of energy for the birds’ long flight to or from their wintering grounds.
There is no problem feeding birds in summer, either. I keep my peanut and nyger seed feeders filled all year long. Woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees dine on the peanuts, while goldfinches are a constant presence at the nyger seed. If you live in the country near a woodlot, rose-breasted grosbeaks and their young will often come to sunflower feeders during the summer months.
5. Metal perches: There is no reason to be concerned that a bird’s feet might stick to metal feeder perches in winter. The feet are made up mostly of scaly tissue and are well protected against the cold. Blood flow in the feet is minimal, and sweat glands are completely absent. This means that there is no moisture present to freeze to metal.
6. Peanut butter is dangerous: As far as I’m aware, there is no documented evidence that birds can choke on peanut butter. In fact, peanut butter is high in fat and therefore provides a great deal of energy.
7. Hummingbirds: Don’t wait until the warm weather of June to get out your hummingbird feeder. Hummingbirds arrive back in the Kawarthas in early May, when flower nectar is in short supply and frigid weather is still possible. At this time of year, a feeder might actually make a difference to their survival. I also recommend leaving it up until late September, when the last of the hummingbirds departs for Mexico and Central America. Whether the sugar water in the feeder contains red dye is largely irrelevant. The birds don’t need it to find the feeders. As to whether the dye can hurt the birds, the jury still seems to be out. I recommend erring on the side of caution.
8. Scattering seeds: You will attract a lot more bird species by spreading seeds on the ground. Yes, you may lose some to squirrels, but at the same time, you will attract some of the many birds that are strictly ground feeders. Who knows? A fox sparrow or an eastern towhee might even show up. I prefer to use millet to spread on the grass and snow; however, I try to scatter it widely enough so that the squirrels can only glean a small part of it. Scattering the seeds near hedges and other areas of cover seems to work best.
9. Where are the birds? The number and variety of birds coming to feeders varies greatly over the year. Why bird activity is slow at times is not always clear. However, there are several possible explanations. First, many species such as cardinals and house finches travel in flocks in winter and may only frequent a small number of feeders. Yours may not be on their list. The presence of a raptor in the neighbourhood may also explain why fewer birds are present on a given day. Habitat changes in your neighborhood such as trees being cut down can also have an impact. The loss of habitat is the number one cause for the rapidly declining populations of many bird species. Finally, birds like siskins, redpolls and pine grosbeaks can be completely absent in the Kawarthas some years. This is because the wild foods they depend upon – conifer seeds, birch seeds, berries, etc – fluctuate in abundance from year to year. When there is plentiful food available in their boreal forest nesting grounds, they simply stay put. This seems to be the case this year.
10. Window collisions: Feeders do increase the danger of window kills. One way to reduce this problem is to place your feeder within ten feet of window glass. In this way, birds flying away from the feeder won’t build up enough speed to seriously injure or kill themselves, should they hit a window. You will find lots of other ideas for reducing window collisions at allaboutbirds.org
Great Backyard Bird Count
Every year I like to encourage readers to further the cause of science by taking part in the Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Launched in 1998, it was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. Now, more than 160,000 people of all ages and walks of life worldwide join the four-day count each February to create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds. In 2016, GBBC participants in more than 130 countries counted 5,689 species of birds on more than 162,000 checklists.
This year’s count takes place February 17-20, which is the Family Day weekend. This makes the count a great activity to do with your kids or grandkids. For at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see. You can count from any location – not just your own backyard. If you’re new to the count, or have not participated since before the 2013, you must create a free online account with eBird to enter your checklists. During the count, you can explore what others are seeing in your area or around the world. Share your bird photos by entering the photo contest, or enjoy images pouring in from across the globe. All the information you need is at gbbc.birdcount.org
Late September through to the end of October is usually the busiest time of year at my backyard feeders. This year is no exception. At least two dozen White-throated Sparrows, along with lesser numbers of White-crowned Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Blue Jays, House Finches, American Goldfinches, Northern Cardinals and Black-capped Chickadees have already put a serious dint in my annual birdseed budget. The White-throats and White-crowns are especially entertaining to watch as they scratch for the millet I scatter on the lawn. Both species kick aside leaf litter and grass with a comical backward motion of the legs. My wife and I are always on the lookout for some of the rarer species that turn up during fall migration, as well. Last week a beautifully-marked male Eastern Towhee dropped by for several hours, and this past Sunday we were treated to a visit by the thrush-like Fox Sparrow.
After the sparrows depart in late October for their wintering grounds in the mid-and southeastern U.S., feeder activity slows dramatically, at least until a less reliable second act of birds arrive. These are the so-called “winter finches,” nomads from the north that may turn up one year but be totally absent the next. The species involved include Purple Finch, Common and Hoary Redpolls, Pine Siskins, Pine and Evening Grosbeaks and both Red and White-winged Crossbills. Why is it that finch numbers fluctuate so widely? The short answer is food.
Winter finches move southward – or east or west, for that matter – when there is a shortage of wild food in their breeding territories in the boreal forest of northern Ontario and Quebec. The wild foods the birds depend upon most are the seeds and berries of deciduous and coniferous trees such as birches, mountain-ashes, pines and spruces. If seed crops are good in the north, the birds stay put. If food is lacking, they will sometimes fly thousands of kilometres to find it. Whether they actually choose to spend the winter here in central Ontario and the Kawarthas depends mainly on the abundance of wild food crops here.
Since the fall of 1999, Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists has prepared an annual forecast of what winter finch species are most likely to make an appearance in southern and central Ontario during the upcoming fall and winter. The forecast is based on information he collects on the relative abundance of seed crops in the boreal forest. Much of the data comes from Ministry of Natural Resources staff. So, what is the seed crop situation this year and what are the implications for the thousands of Peterborough area residents who enjoy feeding the birds? Below you will find a species by species breakdown. Although not finches, three other bird species are included in the list, namely the Blue Jay, Red-breasted Nuthatch and Bohemian Waxwing. Their numbers in a given winter are often linked to those of the boreal finches.
PINE GROSBEAK: This, our largest finch, should move south in small numbers. The American mountain-ash berry crop is below average across the boreal forest this year, which means that the crop may become depleted forcing grosbeaks southward. If Pine Grosbeaks come south, they will find plenty of European Mountain-ash berries and ornamental crabapples in the Kawarthas and elsewhere in central and southern Ontario. They will sometimes come to feeders, too, if sunflower seeds are available.
PURPLE FINCH: Some Purple Finches should show up this winter because of low seed crops in the north. Purple Finches winter in numbers in the north only in years of bumper seed crops. An easy way to tell Purple Finches from House Finches is by checking the tip of the tail; it is distinctly notched or slightly forked in Purple and squared off in House Finch. Purples prefer sunflower seeds at feeders.
RED CROSSBILL: Expect a scattering of Red Crossbills in central Ontario this winter. The species was seen this summer in the “pine belt” of northeastern Algonquin Park and should remain there for the winter. Some may also appear elsewhere in Algonquin Park and in areas of the Kawarthas such as Petroglyphs Provincial Park.
WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: This crossbill moves back and forth like a pendulum across the boreal forest looking for bumper spruce cone crops. It irrupts south only in years of widespread cone crop failures. They will be scarce in most of Ontario because cone crops are low. Many of the spruce in the Kawarthas, however, have abundant cones, so it should be interesting to see if at least some White-wings show up here.
PINE SISKIN: This is another species that depends on the seeds they extract from spruce cones. A low White Spruce cone crop in most of Ontario probably means that very few of these birds will choose to winter here, unless the Kawarthas is an exception. At feeders, siskins prefer nyger seeds in silo feeders.
COMMON REDPOLL: Similar to last winter, expect a southward movement of redpolls. Birch seed crops are low to average across the boreal forest, so they’ll be looking for food elsewhere. Seed abundance is much better in central and southern Ontario, so watch for redpolls in birches and even in weedy fields. At feeders, redpolls prefer the same seeds as siskins, namely nyger seeds served in silo feeders. Hoary Redpolls, which are paler and larger, are often mixed in with flocks of Common Redpolls.
EVENING GROSBEAK: Breeding numbers have been building in Quebec. This is linked to a greater food supply from increasing outbreaks of spruce budworms, so a small southward flight of this spectacular grosbeak is likely. The feeders at the Visitor Centre in Algonquin Park usually have grosbeaks in winter. Evening Grosbeaks prefer black oil sunflower seeds.
BLUE JAY: The flight of southbound jays is fairly strong this year along the north shorelines of Lakes Ontario and Erie, meaning large numbers of the birds are heading to the U.S. for the winter. The number of jays that tough it out in Ontario in a given winter appears to be linked to the size of acorn, beechnut and hazelnut crops. Acorn crops this year were good in some areas but poor in others. The beechnut crop failed in most of Ontario and the hazelnut crop was only average. As for the Kawarthas, the acorn crop appears quite good, so maybe these gorgeous but taken-for-granted birds will stick around in healthy numbers, at least locally.
RED-BREASTED NUTHATCH: Very few of these nuthatches are moving south this year, which means that White-winged Crossbills and Pine Siskins are unlikely to show up, either. A heavy cone crop on Balsam Fir in many areas may explain why Red-breasts are happy to stay put this year.
BOHEMIAN WAXWING: Expect a moderate southward and eastward flight this winter. This is because American Mountain-ash berry crops are only average in the boreal forest. Bohemians now occur annually in central and southern Ontario, whereas historically their appearance here was far less frequent. Their more regular winter occurrence may be related to the abundance of introduced European Buckthorn trees, which produce large berry crops almost every year. If they venture south, Bohemians will also find large crops on European Mountain-ash and ornamental crab apples in many areas, including the Kawarthas. They can be distinguished from Cedar Waxwings by their rufous undertail feathers, yellow tips on wing feathers and dark grey belly.
To conclude, it looks like a fairly good winter for backyard birds, with a nice variety of species likely to show up. If you haven’t done so already, get your feeders out now and stock up on black oil sunflower, nyger and millet seeds. The birds will thank you for it and the winter will seem a little shorter!
Sidebar: Project FeederWatch Needs Your Help!
At regular intervals from November to April, thousands of FeederWatchers count the kinds and numbers of birds at their feeders, then submit their observations to Bird Studies Canada. This information helps scientists study winter bird populations. Project FeederWatch participants receive a full-colour bird poster and calendar, a FeederWatch Handbook and Instruction Book, access to the data entry portion of the FeederWatch website, and the chance to contribute to a continent-wide bird research project. Visit birdscanada.org for more information