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Fowl play

Expert tips on how to attract some feathered friends to your home

Our involvement with Birds Canada began more than eight years ago when they invited Mark to join one of their bird-a-thons. This experience was very impactful indeed and as a result, we have learned so much about backyard birding. Although, we now know people like Jody Allair, director of Citizen Science and Community Engagement at Birds Canada, who has forgotten more than we will ever learn about wild birds. We are honoured to include a contribution from Jody in our monthly e-newsletter (available at markcullen.com for free).

Here are some highlights of what we have learned:

1. Birds do not need us to feed them. Many well-intentioned feeders of birds (vs. ‘bird feeders’) believe that wild birds become dependent on us for food. Other than, perhaps, the coldest days of the year and the ones with the deepest snow fall, birds are very capable of finding food from natural sources. They are much like us in that they will take the easiest path to a meal and if it happens to be at your feeder, that is where they congregate.

2. Use the appropriate seed. Birds are foragers: they find food in some of the most unlikely places, like the seed heads of ornamental grasses in your yard. Consider what kinds of birds you wish to attract to your yard and put out the appropriate seed in your feeders. Here is a short list from Birds Canada:

A. Black oil sunflower/premium mixed seed attracts Cardinal, Blue Jays, black-capped Chickadee, Mourning Dove, Dark-eyed Junco, song sparrow and common Grackle.

B. Suet and bird peanuts (vs. peanuts for human consumption, which is a no-no as birds should not have salt – something else that we learned) attract Blue Jay, red-breasted nuthatch, Downy Woodpecker, Whitebreasted Nuthatch, Hairy Woodpecker (all woodpeckers).

C. Nyjer/Black oil sunflower seed attracts house finch, American Goldfinch, Purple Finch, Common Redpoll, Pine Siskin. Use a nyjer feeder and watch the bird population scrap over who gets the spoils first.

D. Fruit attracts the American Robin. Note that much of the fruit on your crabapples and Mountain ash trees will be foraged by robins who decide that it is a good idea to stay here over winter. They usually strip a fruit-bearing tree clean after the first heavy snow fall.

3. Plants. There are so many plants that birds love that we can’t list them all here. Truth is, the seeds of their favourite plants are what they are really interested in. Broadly speaking, the following plants are bell ringers for attracting birds: ornamental grasses, Joe Pye weed, Echinacea, cedars and rudbeckia. And when you are shopping at your favourite garden retailer, be sure to look for plant labels that state ‘Attracts birds.’

4. Water. This is the single most impactful feature that you can add to your yard in your effort to attract birds (apart from a full bird feeder). Birds need water to drink and bathe. Simple as that. Once again, they have a few things in common with people. A half barrel or a full-blown pond and stream works wonders. Mark has five bird ‘baths’ in his yard at last count. They use them all.

5. Shelter. Birds need shelter to breed and for protection from cold, wind, snow and their enemies like hawks, falcons and neighbourhood cats. Especially cats. The best protection that you can provide wild birds is evergreens that grow tall and thick. Cedars, spruce, fir, along with others, work like a charm. Keep in mind that bird feeders should be located within a metre of a window or more than 10 metres from a window. Within a metre, birds cannot build up enough speed to hurt themselves too seriously if they hit the window and more than 10 metres away provides them an opportunity to veer away from the window when they realize that it is not a thoroughfare to another part of your garden.

Birds Canada is the largest and most sophisticated organization of its kind. There are over 20 full-time employees, including several well-educated and enthusiastic ornithologists who study birds very carefully. Each year these specialists depend on the public – people like you and me – to help them determine the migration patterns of all wild bird species and population growth and decline.

You can become a ‘citizen scientist’ by taking part in Project Nest Watch and Project Feeder Watch. Visit birdscanada.org to learn more and register. It is fun, educational and who knows, you could become hooked and skip the trip south next winter in favour of birdwatching.

Mark Cullen is a Member of the Order of Canada. He reaches over 2 million Canadians with his gardening/environment messages every week. Receive his free monthly newsletter at www.markcullen.com

Ben Cullen is a professional gardener with a keen interest in food gardening and the environment. You can follow both Mark and Ben on Twitter (@MarkCullen4), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/MarkCullenGardening/) and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/markcullengardening/).

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