Feed the Birds
Don’t worry — there’s nothing wrong with providing food for birds over the winter, as long as you follow these guidelines.
By Maria MacRae
Watching a variety of birds visiting your yard is one of winter’s great pleasures. After all, spotting them in the wild can take effort, patience and luck, but put out a filled birdfeeder and you can see a variety of feathered species from the comfort of your home.
The best way to ensure you meet the needs of all kinds of birds throughout the seasons is to plant the right native species. These flowers, shrubs and trees will provide shelter and food in the form of seeds and berries. Supplementing this natural buffet through the use of feeders, however, allows you to provide a greater diversity of food and gives you the opportunity to see birds up close and in the clear.
Many Canadians set up birdfeeders over the winter, but can this practice have detrimental effects on bird populations? Some are concerned that providing food will affect birds’ behaviour and ability to survive on their own, but if you take a bit of care with your feeders, you have nothing to worry about.
A common concern is that birdfeeders will negatively affect migrating birds, preventing them from flying south when they should. Naturally occurring cues, in particular changes in light, are actually much stronger than the lure of abundant food sources in spurring migration in birds that travel long distances to tropical destinations.
There is speculation, however, that feeders have encouraged some birds that only migrate short distances, such as cardinals, to stay north for the winter. One European study showed a clear connection between bird feeders and a shift in the migratory behaviour of blackcaps [Sylvia atricapilla]. Populations of blackcaps from southern Germany and Austria historically migrated to Portugal for the winter, with only the occasional bird heading to Great Britain for the season. Over the last 30 years, as the availability of birdfeeders increased in Britain, these birds have increasingly overwintered there instead.
Another fear is that birds will forget how to find natural food sources, and that if feeders are ever left untended, regular visitors may starve. Studies have shown, however, that birds primarily rely on natural food sources, using feeders only as a supplementary food source. Birds that frequented birdfeeders were just as successful at surviving when those feeders were removed as ones that had never visited feeders.
A bigger potential problem is the positioning and maintenance of feeders. A poorly located birdfeeder can expose birds to the dangers of window collisions or predation by cats or hawks. Make sure your feeders are well away from windows and launching pads for predators, and keep birdfeeders clean to ensure you’re not inadvertently exposing birds to bacteria or diseases.
Setting up birdfeeders does require some work and care, but the rewards are well worth it. Seeing a diversity of colourful birds coming to take advantage of the food you have generously provided is thanks enough.
Maria MacRae is manager of the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s backyard habitat program.
Keep it Clean
Regular cleaning of feeders is important to ensure that they don’t become a source of disease or contamination. Follow these tips and your feeders will be safe and effective.
- Clean birdfeeders promptly during and after a snowfall.
- Fill feeders promptly after a heavy snow or during very cold weather. Small birds must work very hard to stay warm and need more food than usual when the temperature falls below zero.
- Keep the area holding the seed clean and dry; wet food can spoil easily.
- Each time you refill the feeder, clean edges and discard any damp seed before refilling.
- Once every few weeks, empty feeders completely and wash them. Use hot soapy water and clean thoroughly with a stiff brush, getting into all corners, then dip them in a mixture of one part bleach to nine parts water. Rinse thoroughly and allow to dry completely before refilling.
- Store seed in dry, sealed containers to prevent mould and rodent or insect infestation.
- Clean under feeders regularly to prevent accumulation of wet or contaminated seeds.
- Avoid putting feed directly on the ground — seeds can quickly become damp and mouldy.
Sunflower seeds will attract purple finches, cardinals, goldfinches, grosbeaks, juncos, chickadees, nuthatches, and many other birds. Black oil sunflower seeds are especially good due to their higher oil and calorie content. There are also plenty of commercial birdseed mixes available, but be aware that mixes containing a high proportion of ingredients such as hulled oats, rice, peanut hearts, corn and wheat can bring in pests such as pigeons, starlings and house sparrows. Suet provides a high-energy food source for woodpeckers, nuthatches and other insect-eating birds, helping them survive the harsh winter season. Just don’t leave it out in warmer weather; one study showed that partially melted fat caused problems for woodpeckers, causing matting and a loss of facial feathers. Do not put out salty, mouldy, or sugary foods.
Better Bird Feeding
- Place feeders farther than pouncing distance from dense shrubbery or other places where cats can hide. Provide shelter such as dense shrubs or trees just outside this distance as an escape from hunting hawks.
- Put feeders in a spot where you can get at them all year for refilling.
- Locate your feeders where you can see them from the window, but to reduce collisions, make sure they’re less than one metre or more than three metres away from the glass.
- If you’re still concerned about birds hitting the window, draw the drapes or hang paper, fabric or foil streamers outside.
- To attract a diversity of birds, put out a variety of feeders with different foods.
- Separating food types and feeders will help give smaller birds a chance to eat without being scared away by the larger birds. To discourage big birds, hang tubular feeders with short perches or none at all to discourage the larger birds.
- Use specially adapted feeders — weight-sensitive or surrounded by a metal cage — to allow smaller birds to feed while keeping out most larger birds and squirrels.
- For the best chance at thwarting squirrels, place feeders on posts with a baffle underneath. Make sure that cats can’t climb the post.
- Metal feeders prevent chewing by squirrels.
- Don’t put feeders over decks where spilled seed can accumulate for rodents to find.