(Originally published December, 2010)
Winter has gone to the birds
By Kristen Hamilton
Winter can sometimes be long and dreary, but learning how to attract birds to your backyard can add some excitement and make for a great hobby to keep you busy this winter.
Feeding the birds is been something I’ve done since I was a little kid. It’s wonderful to watch them swoop from feeder to tree and back to the feeder. By providing the birds with food, water and shelter, you are bound to attract many lovely species.
Providing water may seem easy, but in the winter it does pose a bit of a problem because the water can freeze. It’s very important for the birds to have access to fresh water in the winter because many of their drinking sources are frozen. Simply adding a water heater to a birdbath will keep it from freezing and provide the birds with the fresh water they need.
Providing food isn’t as challenging because you can get pre-made mixes at many garden centres and hardware stores. It’s also important to put the right feeder in the right location. Chickadees for example, spend most of their time in trees and are used to eating at higher levels, so a feeder placed up high from the ground is best. Sparrows however, tend to eat from the ground and would benefit from a feeder placed on, or close to the ground.
Birds will adjust their habit of eating if they are hungry enough to get to the seed. Placing a feeder in the middle of the lawn isn’t so appealing to birds; ideally some type of shelter close by such as a garden bed, a tree or shrub will make the feeder more attractive. Just remember to place your feeders close enough to the house so in the winter they’re easy to keep filled.
When selecting feeders you’ll want to make sure they’re squirrel-proof, unless you don’t mind letting the squirrels in on a free meal. Birds will shy away from a feeder if a squirrel occupies it. If you have a population of squirrels it’s best to provide them with a feeder that they can eat from. A few snacks that squirrels enjoy nibbling on are corn, crackers, suet and sunflower seeds.
Deer can also cause a little trouble with feeders, so it’s best to place them up high and out of reach from the deer. A large tray feeder will come in handy because you don’t have to fill it daily, and it offers plenty of seating. You can also design a tray feeder with a roof to block the snow from piling on top of the seed.
Sunflower seeds will offer food to 20 different species of birds. A pre-mixed bird seed that contains more sunflower seeds than millet will be enjoyed more by the birds and will not be wasted as much as a mix that contains more millet.
Not only can you purchase pre-made bird feed, but you can also plant different types of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs, like viburnum, Virginia creeper, service berry, junipers and dogwoods. Dogwood varieties such as the pagoda dogwood or the red osier dogwood provide some of the best-loved bird food in the fall and winter, giving birds such as the grosbeak and the woodpecker a delicious treat of shiny berries.
Believe it or not, in just a short time an entire dogwood can be stripped of all its berries once they are discovered. Different annuals such as zinnias, bachelor’s buttons, cosmos and sunflowers will attract seed-seeking birds such as goldfinch and sparrows. Perennial garden favorites such as the black-eyed Susan seed heads are enjoyed by the common redpoll. Our favorite gold strum variety of black-eyed Susan does not produce the nutritious seeds the birds crave, so stick to the truly native species.
If you’re lucky enough to have oaks in your backyard, you’ll have a wonderful supply of acorns that will draw the birds in, especially blue jays. Also, I find crushing a few eggshells and leaving them out where the birds can get to them will provide the birds with some of their supplementary needs.
If you want the birds to enjoy the seeds from your season’s garden its best not to cut any of the perennials down. Leaving some of the tall ornamental grasses for the birds also adds some winter interest to your garden. In the spring, the dried blades of long grass are great nesting material.
Creating shelter is also very important as it lets the birds find some warmth during the winter months and also hides them from predators. Evergreens are great for providing shelter all year long. Different types of evergreens can be planted specifically to create great garden features and provide birds with the shelter they need. Don’t forget to add other shrubs to your evergreen groupings such as bayberry and bearberry.
A great way to get your children involved in bird watching is to let them help you fill the feeders, but they can also make some wonderful treats for the birds. From your garden, gather pinecones and then smear them with peanut butter and the finally roll them in a seed mixture. This project can get a little sticky but is lots of fun and it attracts all types of birds from chickadees to woodpeckers. A great project for any age is to make simple feeders out of recycled bottles or old scraps of wood.
Whether it’s a hobby you want to develop, or if birding is an activity you’ve been enjoying for many years, it’s a wonderful way to get out and enjoy all the seasons in Muskoka.
Kristen Hamilton (nee Suddaby) has more than just a green thumb; she’s also a certified Landscape Technician. Hamilton has a BA in Applied Science as well, with a major in Landscape.