Dinner is served. Breakfast and lunch, too! With cold weather approaching, I have been getting my bird feeders cleaned and set up for the winter. Birdwatchers can be an obsessive group, keeping a life list, hiking for miles to see that one special species. For the most part, I am satisfied just to let the birds come to me and watch them from the comfort of my home. Especially in winter, when it’s cold and snowy.
Feeding backyard birds has become a hugely popular hobby across North America, second only to gardening. It’s estimated about 1/3 of households make seed available. Considering the huge negative impacts humans have on the lives of birds, the occasional free lunch seems like the least we can do for them.
Supplemental feeding may help weaker birds make it through the winter and allow birds to begin the breeding season in better condition. During extreme cold spells, feeders can help more birds survive as individuals who are unable to find sufficient food before sunset often don’t make it through the night. Feeding birds will not stop individuals from migrating, an urge triggered by daylength. However, over time the availability of widespread supplemental food supplies can impact the winter range of birds. In past decades, the number of goldfinches overwintering in Ontario has grown. Northern Cardinals have also been able to expand their range northward partly because of bird-feeding practices.
I set my feeders up farther away from the house than I would have liked. It’s nice to have the birds arriving just outside your picture window. But proximity to a window can be a deathtrap for birds, who often take off in a rush when startled and fly right into the window. Many birds die this way every year. If the impact doesn’t kill them outright, they may die later from internal bleeding. Placing the feeder away from the house makes viewing less immediate, but is safer for the birds.
Having a variety of feeder types and different kinds of seeds available helps to attract an assortment of species to your yard. As the weather has been unseasonably mild, so far I have had a limited number of visitors, but a steady stream of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata) stop by. I put a handful of peanuts in the shell out for them, a sure hit. While the mainstay of my sunflower offering is black oiled sunflower, I also put out some of the larger striped sunflower for larger birds like the jays.
I have a couple of kinds of suet feeders. This log variation has been quite popular. Here, a Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens), identifiable as a male by the red spot on the back of his head, is helping himself. If you are a keen observer, it is possible to tell woodpecker individuals apart by the pattern of colouration on their heads.
By far the most numerous visitors at the feeders right now are American Goldfinches (Carduelis tristis). When I first started feeding winter birds a few decades ago, I was puzzled by these drab, olive-yellow visitors. It was a while before I learned that the bright yellow summer birds molt into a less flamboyant feather coat for the winter. Losing their breeding colours helps to signal male birds that breeding competition has ended and lets them come together as a flock. If you want to attract goldfinches, a nyger feeder is your best bet. Goldfinches love nyger (thistle) seed, but also take black oiled sunflower seed.
Another common visitor is the Black-capped Chickadee (Parus atricapilla). In fact, these jaunty, active little birds are often the number-one most-common feeder bird at Ontario feeders. Chickadees like black oiled sunflower seed, and I usually put out a handful of peanut bits or small redskin peanuts for them as well. They have to beat out the blue jays though.
Most feeder birds visit multiple backyards and still use natural food sources as well, so unless you are in an isolated location, you can take a winter vacation without guilt over hungry birds. One uncomplicated argument for feeding birds goes like this: When you feed birds, you help more birds survive to breed again. More birds will eat more insects, so fewer pesticides are needed. Fewer chemicals are safer for everyone.
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