Feed the Birds

Looking to bring colour and joy to those grey winter days? Setting up a feeder for our fine feathered friends is a mutually beneficial move.

November 20, 2022 | | Country Living 101

“Feeding birds helps people connect with nature. It’s incredibly peaceful to watch them flutter about your yard,” says Brett Lagerquist, owner of Caledon Mountain Wildlife in Caledon Village. “It’s also a wonderful way to teach children about the importance of the environment.”

If you’ve toyed with the idea of installing a bird feeder, winter is a good time to start. As soon as the temperatures dip in late fall, birds look to supplement their diet – and rely on feeders as a major food source through late spring. Fun supporting fact: In 1994 U.S. congressman John Porter named February as National Bird-feeding Month because it’s the most challenging month for wild birds.

Feeder fine points

When you install a new feeder, it can take time for word to get out. So plan to place it in a spot that’s highly visible, allowing birds to know you’re in business. You can also sprinkle a little seed on the ground around the area to encourage traffic.

Illustration by Ruth Anne Pearce

As for the type of feeder to buy, Lagerquist says the best are ones that keep squirrels away, have a large capacity, and come with a warranty because they are constantly exposed to the elements. Lagerquist recommends a cylindrical cage-like feeder such as Brome’s Squirrel Buster, which comes in different sizes and will appeal to a broad range of fowl.

For beginners, Susan McIntosh, co-owner with her husband, Scott, of Orangeville’s For The Birds Nature Store, also recommends a traditional wood house-style feeder which likewise attracts a variety of winged visitors. Also available in a range of sizes and styles, the lids lift easily to make filling a cinch.

Hinterland who’s who

What bird species can you expect to see stopping by your feeder? Lagerquist says not only is Southern Ontario home to a wonderfully diverse variety of birds, but it’s also a breeding ground and migratory highway for birds coming from the north for the winter – in other words, plenty of excitement for amateur ornithologists. “The birds you attract will be determined by what seed and feeders you have available,” Lagerquist says. Some of the most common types you can expect to see include nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, dark-eyed juncos, northern cardinals, American goldfinches, pine siskins, blue jays and mourning doves.

If you’re interested in a particular species, McIntosh suggests adding species-specific feeders to your collection – a suet feeder for woodpeckers and nuthatches, or a nyjer seed feeder for goldfinches, for instance.

Seed savvy

Black oil sunflower seeds are the top choice in bird food. The seeds are smaller than striped sunflower seeds and have very thin shells which makes them easy to crack open. The kernels inside have a very high fat content which is critical in the harsh winter months. You can serve these seeds straight up, or as part of a nutrient-rich and tasty seed mix.

Mixes frequently combine black oil sunflower, striped sunflower – their bigger, harder shells are no match for larger birds such as cardinals – peanuts and safflower. Mixes are often filled out with corn and millet. Check that your mix is mostly sunflower, especially if you notice birds are favouring those and leaving behind other ingredients while they wait for the next refill.

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  • The amount of seed you’ll need for the season depends on how many feeders you have and the volume of birds you attract. It will take a winter of feeding to really determine how much you should budget. Many people continue to feed birds in the warmer months too, but traffic will be slower as birds have natural foods to forage.

    Chore time

    Regardless of what feeder you choose, McIntosh suggests you clean them regularly with gentle dish soap and very hot water. Feeder trays collect mouldy and decomposing shells which can cause illness in birds. McIntosh also suggests cleaning after wet weather – especially a feeder using tiny nyjer seeds because they tend to clump.

    How often you fill your feeder (or feeders) will depend on demand, but expect to head outside anywhere from every two days to at least every five. Also be sure to top up your feeder if you know a snowstorm is coming; this allows birds to prepare for stretches of being unable to feed, McIntosh says.

    About the Author More by Alison McGill

    Alison McGill is a writer, editor and podcaster who lives in Halton Hills.

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