Images: Corel; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Dave Menke)
Connecting with nature is becoming a rarity in many people’s lives. Wild birds allow us to make that connection without venturing out of the city. Unlike many mammals, which are elusive and hard to spot, birds of all kinds come effortlessly into view on back porches and balconies. It is no surprise that bird-watching is growing in popularity. It is a pastime enjoyable to everyone, from novice to expert.
Some thoughtful planting, well-placed feeders, and a water source allow you to create a bird haven on your balcony or in your backyard. Once you start paying attention to birds, you will notice their incredible diversity. The species you see will vary throughout the day and the seasons. With practice, your ability to identify birds will quickly improve.
A word of caution: the challenge of spotting, identifying, and listing multitudinous bird species is an addictive exercise. What begins on your back porch could end up taking you to the far corners of the Earth.
Let’s start with seven fairly common yet uncommonly fascinating birds. Some may be easy to spot. Others take a little more effort.
Great Horned Owl
Easily recognized by its large size and prominent ear tufts, the great horned owl inhabits most forested parts of Canada. It nests early, often starting in February while the snow is still heavy, and defends its nest aggressively. A formidable hunter, it has extremely keen hearing and night vision, powerful talons, and silent flight. This voracious raptor will go after prey as large as hawks, skunks, and even porcupines. Crows detest the great horned owl and will gather in numbers to mob it. Mostly nocturnal, the species may be difficult to spot, but listen for its call of five deep hoos.
The brick-red male and yellowish-grey female of this widespread finch both have heavy bills crossed like shears at the tips. These unusual mandibles are adapted for feeding on the seeds of conifer cones. You are most likely to see the red crossbill on coniferous trees, hanging upside down like a parrot and using both bill and feet to feed on cones. Highly nomadic, the species wanders across the country following the availability of conifer seeds, so its numbers in any area can vary greatly from year to year.
This diminutive finch is heavily streaked in grey, brown, and white, with a touch of yellow on its wings and tail. Very social, it is almost always seen in flocks, often bickering at feeders. It can be found across the country in coniferous and mixed-wood forests. Like the crossbill, it is known for its nomadic nature, so it may be common in an area one year and entirely absent the next.
Similar to the blue jay, but with a black head and shoulders, Steller’s jay lives west of the Rockies. Its more vibrantly coloured cousin is found to the east, with very little overlap in their ranges. Watch dogs of the bird world, jays sound the alarm to warn of approaching danger. Good at mimicking other birds, especially the red-tailed hawk, Steller’s jay may use this skill to scare off predators.
This brown-backed ground bird has a black breast shield and sideburns and two small black horns. Wintering in the south of most provinces, it inhabits open spaces where weed and waste-grain stalks protrude above snow. There, you will see it walking or running in search of seeds, picking at stalks with its narrow bill. In more northern areas, the horned lark is the earliest spring arrival. Returning in early February or March, it is also one of the first birds to nest.
A crested, brownish bird with a black mask and bill, a tail tipped in yellow, and red wing tips, the cedar waxwing is found across southern Canada. This impressive-looking bird occupies a variety of habitats, generally staying close to sources of small wild fruit. You will have much more success attracting the species by planting berry-producing shrubs than by putting up feeders. The cedar waxwing winters in southern British Columbia, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Sightings have increased in recent years.
Your first sight of a pileated woodpecker—by far our largest woodpecker—can be awe inspiring. Mostly black and white, it has a bright red crest. The species is found across Canada in areas away from human habitations, preferring mature woodlands with standing dead trees. In recent years, however, it has become a more common sight near settlements, where it is attracted to suet feeders.