Feeding and Sheltering Birds

Bruce Whittington on natural ways to feed and shelter our feathered friends this coming cold season.

Credit: Bruce Whittington

It’s usually the Golden-crowned Sparrows that get me. One morning, they have arrived, scratching in the duff beneath the feeder, and once again, I haven’t cleaned it in months.

The return of these and many other winter visitors to our gardens is a reminder that there is a long bird-feeding season ahead, and now is a good time to do a little maintenance.

When large numbers of birds are drawn regularly to a small area (like a bird feeder) to feed, there is an increased risk that disease will be more rapidly transmitted among them, so good feeder hygiene is important. Diseases like salmonellosis and avian pox are spread through close contact among birds. Aspergillosis, a lung disease, can be caused in birds by toxins found in mouldy birdseed itself. So get out the scrub brush.

Cleaning feeders is straightforward. Many of the plastic and metal varieties can be disassembled for easy cleaning. Use warm soapy water, and scrub all the nooks and crannies with a small brush – this is my justification for keeping all those old toothbrushes. Wooden feeders are a little harder to scrub, but keep at it. When you’re done, rinse them with a 10 per cent solution of bleach to disinfect them, and then rinse well with clear water. The sunny days of fall will dry the feeders in no time.

If you’re new to bird feeding, talk to the experts about how to get started. Talk to the bird specialty stores, and talk to your neighbours. They’ll tell you what works, and what doesn’t. I like to keep things simple. I use one feeder for black oil sunflower seed, which is popular with many species. In another feeder, I use white millet. It can be purchased separately, and it is also often found as the main component in commercial mixes. Millet appeals to some of the smaller birds. If you mix it all together, the finches will throw out the millet, looking for the sunflower. But put them in separate feeders, and the finches will go for both. You can experiment with other seeds, but these are the top two.

Try to avoid the large red seeds like BB pellets. This is milo or sorghum, often used as “filler” in mixes, and pretty much universally ignored by birds. While wheat and corn are acceptable as wild bird food, they sometimes attract less desirable species, like House Sparrows, European Starlings, and Rock Doves, or pigeons.

To broaden your horizons, if you see Pine Siskins or American Goldfinches at your feeder, try offering some niger seed (often misleadingly called “thistle,” which it is not). To attract the insect-eating crowd, like wrens, chickadees, kinglets and bushtits, try a suet cake. The commercial products are double rendered and last well even in mild coastal climates.

Place your feeders where the birds can access them safely from cover, and where they are not exposed to attack from hawks and cats. It’s sometimes a good idea to move feeders from time to time, to minimize the risk of disease spreading, and to give the ground underneath a break from all the spillage.

Don’t forget that birds need water all year-round. A winter puddle will do very nicely, and a garden pond can be a real bird magnet. There are also many commercial birdbaths available. In the colder areas of the province, you may have to use an immersible heater to keep the water open, and to minimize the risk of frost damage to your one-of-a-kind pottery birdbath.

There is one more important thing you can do for the returning flocks, and that is to go easy in the garden. Leave some of the leafy debris where it falls, for the ground feeders to forage in for insects. Be a little circumspect when it comes to deadheading. Once gone to seed, cosmos and purple coneflower, for example, are very popular with small finches. By watching what happens in your garden, you’ll soon learn which seeds the birds are attracted to.

Remember also to leave a little fruit on the trees and vines. A tenacious apple or two may help to keep an American Robin going through a spell of bad weather.

Wintering birds will benefit from a little boost in their diet, courtesy of your feeders. They also must face longer and colder nights, and shelter is essential if they are to survive. Try to leave some dense shrubbery for them to roost in, or create a brush pile in a back corner of the yard.

If you make them welcome, these birds will stay, greeting you at first light after those long winter nights. Even through the winter, they remind us, these gardens are filled with life.

Bruce Whittington is president of the Victoria Natural History Society and executive director of Habitat Acquisition Trust.