Foul-Weather Friends

Birds are drawn to feeders like Saturday morning coffee drinkers to Tim Hortons. The presence of birds in the winter landscape is life-affirming.

November 21, 2011 | | Environment

We scanned the spruce trees at Caledon Central Public School for birds sheltering from the early morning temperatures of -17°C. A bracing north wind on this January day drove the cold deep into our parkas. I had joined expert birder Chris Punnett and two other members of the Upper Credit Field Naturalists for their annual Christmas bird count.

This count takes place within a 24-kilometre circle centred on Caledon Village. Teams of birders survey slices of that pie and then convene in the evening to report their observations. The Upper Credit count is just one of thousands of Christmas bird counts that take place every year throughout North America on a selected day from December 14 to January 5.

That Chris Punnett had forgotten his hat on this day lent a “Survivor” quality to the outing. But perhaps drawing strength from his stiff-upper-lip British heritage, he did not complain. This begs the question of how birds, many small enough to nestle comfortably into the palm of a hand, endure the type of penetrating chill that was quickly turning Chris’s ears red.

Much of the answer lies in the reality that native birds, unlike us, have had tens of thousands of generations to evolve coverings and strategies to protect them from the cold. So on this bitter January day the Upper Credit Naturalists were able to find 3,775 birds of 39 species in the count area. The count for 2010, conducted on a warmer winter’s day, found 4,053 birds of 46 species.

Evening Grosbeak. Photo by Robert McCaw

Evening Grosbeak. Photo by Robert McCaw

This article features an admittedly selective group of the smaller birds that regularly turn up on these Christmas counts. These small birds endure our winters by stoking their bodily furnaces with seeds, insect eggs and larvae. Many of them also avail themselves of the high-calorie offerings at our bird feeders. Others eschew our handouts entirely, choosing to tough it out as they have always done, relying on the bounty that nature provides.

Many are year-round residents, such as chickadees and nuthatches. Others invade southern Ontario in noisy, rollicking flocks from the boreal forests of the north. Some of the most familiar of these northerners are redpolls and pine siskins, small finches that often travel together during the winter.

Goldfinches, birds that stay with us year-round, are often part of these flocks as well. In fact, it may be the goldfinches that lead these northern finches to water, so to speak. Goldfinches know where the local nyjer feeders are. Redpolls and siskins simply need to glom onto a flock of goldfinches to find these reliable food sources.

The epicentre of finch feeding in the hills has to be the array of feeders hanging outside Caledon Mountain Wildlife Supplies in Caledon Village. The ravening hordes of finches that descend on proprietor Brian Thayer’s nine feeders consume prodigious amounts of seed. He keeps fit by lugging bags of nyjer and a seed mixture called “Finch Feast” outside. “When the siskins and redpolls arrive, it’s a feeding frenzy,” he says.

Common Redpoll. Photo by Robert McCaw

Common Redpoll. Photo by Robert McCaw

These northern finches don’t always spend the winter among us, but Ron Pittaway of the Ontario Field Ornithologists tells us when to expect them. Just as the Farmers’ Almanac forecasts the weather, Pittaway forecasts finches. For years this distinguished birder has asked naturalists throughout northern Ontario to observe the seed and fruit production of trees in their area, especially spruce, white birch and mountain ash, the most important trees for northern finch.

“I have them rate them as poor, fair, good, very good, excellent or bumper. This is a standard rating system,” says Pittaway.

He then uses the information to predict the varieties and numbers of finches and other northern birds that will abandon their high latitude haunts to seek food here in the south. A northern seed crop generally rated as poor or fair will likely translate into lively finch activity at our feeders.

On the whole, Pittaway’s forecasts are remarkably prescient. For example, a poor white birch seed crop in the north last fall led him to predict a strong movement of redpolls – birds that depend heavily on birch seed in the winter – into southern Ontario. The lovely redpolls acted as if they had read his forecast, arriving here early in the season and remaining through the winter.

We shouldn’t expect a repeat of the redpoll invasion this year though. Pittaway expects them to remain in the north, feeding on a bumper crop of seed from dwarf birch in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. However, his 2011-2012 forecast does predict a return of pine siskins to southern Ontario. Pittaway also suggests that pine grosbeaks and their stunning yellow cousins, evening grosbeaks, may appear among us this winter. If evening grosbeaks find your feeder, prepare to shell out – these gluttons can empty a sunflower feeder alarmingly fast.

An endearing quality of the birds that visit us from the north is their trusting nature. Take, for example, Chris Punnett’s experience at his Mulmur home in 2009. As he filled a feeder hanging on a clothesline, hungry siskins inched closer and closer to him.

Pine Sisken. Photo by Robert McCaw

Pine Sisken. Photo by Robert McCaw

“As I hung one of the feeders back on its hook they descended on it within inches of may hand,” he said. “I stayed where I was and the siskins didn’t seem concerned about my presence, so I reached out very slowly and touched one of the siskins. Not only didn’t it fly off, but it actually didn’t stop feeding. So I ran my finger gently down its back a couple of times. Apart from an occasional sideways glance, it kept eating.”

The bustling activity at feeders like those of Chris Punnett and Brian Thayer might suggest that birds are common in the winter landscape. The reality is different. Birds are usually thinly distributed in our fields and woodlands.

On a fine sunny day last January, I walked the Bruce Trail in Caledon from Grange Sideroad to Puckering Lane, then west to Brimstone and back up the escarpment to return to the Grange. For much of the hike all I could hear was the crunching of the snow underfoot or the wind whistling through the trees above. Quietude is an overarching quality of the winter woods. Sometimes I can walk for half an hour or more without hearing a bird, save the occasional cawing of a distant crow.

On this hike, as is typical, when I did hear the lively chatter of chickadees and other small woodland birds, I knew there was likely a feeder nearby. Birds are drawn to feeders like Saturday morning coffee drinkers to Tim Hortons.

The most familiar and probably most beloved of the birds that come to our feeders are chickadees. Inquisitive and bold, they are accomplished food sleuths, investigating the nooks and crannies of their territories for tiny insect eggs and small seeds. Chickadees, familiar with the largesse of humans, watch us carefully to fathom whether we might offer up something tasty. So confiding are these animated winter sprites that they can even be enticed to feed from our hands.

Black Capped Chickadee. Photo by Robert McCaw

Black Capped Chickadee. Photo by Robert McCaw

Many of us have experienced this simple joy. Some of my students had this opportunity for the first time at Albion Hills Conservation Area last winter. Upon encountering a band of chickadees we stopped and extended palms cupped with sunflower seeds. Twenty energetic, talkative children fell silent, anticipating the touch of tiny chickadee feet on their hands. The children were spellbound with wonder and delight. It was sheer magic.

Chickadees usually travel in mixed flocks in the winter with nuthatches – both white and red breasted – and downy woodpeckers, their most usual confreres. Like the mixed herds of gazelles, zebras and wildebeest on the African savannah, different species of birds vary in their ability to see and hear.

The subtly different senses of chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers may serve to complement each other in detecting predators. Research has found, for example, that downy woodpeckers rely on chickadees to warn them of approaching danger.

Different abilities may also help flocks of mixed species locate food as the birds make their rounds in the winter landscape. And travelling in a group may serve an assertive purpose as well, with large flocks able to occupy more productive territories than smaller groups.

Brown creepers and golden-crowned kinglets sometimes join these mixed flocks. Both creepers and kinglets range widely throughout the hills in the winter, but neither species is easy to find. These birds are seldom drawn into the orbit of a feeder. They are tiny and well camouflaged – especially the brown creeper which can disappear in plain sight, its mottled brown plumage a match for the bark on which it forages.

Kinglets and creepers are also thinly dispersed across the landscape, probably because of the scarcity of their winter foods. And the winter call notes that creepers and kinglets use to communicate are faint and high pitched. Middle-aged birders count themselves lucky if they can still hear their voices.

Brown Creeper. Photo by Robert McCaw

Brown Creeper. Photo by Robert McCaw

So finding a brown creeper or golden-crowned kinglet in winter is an accomplishment, even for a seasoned birder. The first step is simply acknowledging that they can be found. Small numbers are almost always present in our woodlands. The second step is hiking in appropriate habitat. For brown creepers this is mature woodland where they creep, for want of a better word, along the trunks of rough-barked trees, searching for insect eggs and larvae. For kinglets it is woodland that contains conifers like hemlock and balsam fir. The third step is to stop and listen frequently. Even the footfalls of a solo hiker will drown out their weak calls.

I am always delighted when I find them. While cross-country skiing at Mansfield last winter, I paused and listened frequently, eventually locating two or three brown creepers. In true creeper fashion they would climb a tree from its base, then plummet downwards to repeat the process on another tree. Encountering these vibrant beings in frozen winter woodlands is a simple pleasure.

I found only one golden-crowned kinglet last winter. It was flitting through the upper branches of a balsam fir along the Bruce Trail between Charleston and Beechgrove sideroads in Caledon. Despite listening and looking carefully, I couldn’t find any others, even though kinglets usually travel in small groups.

Golden Crowned Kinglet. Photo by Robert McCaw

Golden Crowned Kinglet. Photo by Robert McCaw

There is good reason for kinglets to keep company with their own kind. They are the smallest birds on the winter landscape, roughly half the weight of a chickadee. These tiny fluffballs face a daunting challenge maintaining their 44°C metabolism on bitterly cold winter nights. One solution is the very effective insulating qualities of their feathers. Another is sharing body heat. Kinglets snuggle up to each other after dark. Even with these strategies the majority of overwintering golden-crowned kinglets likely perish before spring arrives.

Whenever I come across kinglets in the winter woods I find their feeding behaviour baffling. They must be one of the most difficult birds to photograph for they are constantly on the move. Like manic dervishes they hop from branch to branch constantly, seeming never to pause long enough to feed successfully.

Bernd Heinrich, author of Winter World, also wondered about their feeding habits. “Try as I might,” he wrote, “I cannot see them actually catching and eating anything, even as I get within three or four feet of them. They feed on prey too tiny for me to see.”

Heinrich, trained scientist that he is, set about to discover the kinglets’ secret by killing a few and examining their stomach contents. To his great surprise he found the stomachs full of tiny inchworms. He subsequently discovered that these caterpillars overwinter, frozen solid, on branches and the needles of conifers. These caterpillars-on-ice appear to be the key to kinglet winter survival.

Was Heinrich’s killing of these tiny birds justified? Here’s how he accounted for his actions: “Finding out [kinglets] eat moth caterpillars in the winter is not only a satisfying accomplishment, but it is also a discovery of a link in their survival. To care for the welfare of kinglets, it is necessary to care for the moths.” He could have added that to care for the welfare of the moths it is necessary to care for the trees their caterpillars feed on.

Snow Buntings. Photo by Robert McCaw

Snow Buntings. Photo by Robert McCaw

Trees are of no consequence for snow buntings, however. These are birds that breed in the vast desolate terrain of the high Arctic, a landscape entirely devoid of trees, save perhaps ankle-high willows. In winter they gravitate south and occupy open country reminiscent of their Arctic habitat. Like the finches, snow buntings travel in large flocks in winter. You either see no snow buntings at all or scores of them. And like other flocking birds they have very good reasons to stick together. Because they forage in open country, snow buntings are dangerously exposed to hawks and other predators. Flocking allows them to share the costs of vigilance. Individuals can take the time to feed, protected by the many eyes of their companions.

Last January, as I watched a flock of snow buntings settle to feast on grass and wildflower seeds, some of them, like me, likely spotted the predatory northern shrike perched on a hilltop apple tree. As if on cue, the buntings rose and, buoyed and buffeted by 35-kilometre winds, swept away westward.

The presence of birds in the winter landscape is life-affirming. They demonstrate a remarkable hardiness and adaptive grace. Surely we possess enough of those qualities ourselves to get out and enjoy them. Why not conduct your own winter bird count? Fresh air, exercise and discovery will be your rewards. But please remember to wear a hat.

More Info

Must feed the birds

As the brilliant hues of autumn fade, hurray for the birds who bring welcome splashes of life and colour to the greys and whites of the winter hills. The blues of the jays, the roses and yellows of the grosbeaks, the startling scarlet of the cardinals are just some of the colours that brighten the chill landscape. And there is perhaps no cheerier sight than a flock of cheeky chickadees darting to and from the feeder. Here are two stores where you can find a variety of feeders and stock up on bulk seeds, including special blends for particular species, to entice the birds to the view from your window.

  • Caledon Mountain Wildlife Supplies 18371 Hurontario St., Caledon Village (behind Village Bistro) 519-927-3212
  • For The Birds Nature Store 114 Broadway, Orangeville 519-942-8795

About the Author More by Don Scallen

Don Scallen enjoys sharing his love of nature through his writing and presentations. Check out his blog "Notes from the Wild".

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