The sight of birds flying south is a familiar one in these parts, a sure sign that short days and shivery weather are just around the corner. Yet there are dozens of avian species that do not leave, and many can be tempted to visit your yard. Attracting those charms of finches, parties of jays, hosts of sparrows and banditries of chickadees is easy and a lot of fun—if nothing else, it’ll bring colour and life to a dreary, snowbound yard, and give you months of bird watching from the warm side of a window.
What birds can you actually expect to see? That depends on various factors, but there’s certainly no shortage of options. About a hundred avian species overwinter in Alberta, and in the Edmonton area, upwards of 50 of them are typically spotted in annual Christmas bird counts. This includes a good range of beautiful songbirds.
For example, there’s the Bohemain waxwing, a sleek, grey bird with a black mask and white and yellow wings that is often found near mountain ashes. Nuthatches, both the red-breasted and white-breasted varieties, are tiny, acrobatic songbirds often found on the underside of branches or clinging head-down to the bark of poplars and spruces. Similarly small but hardly shy about it, the black-capped chickadee is another common sight. Very comfortable around humans, these birds are often among the first to show up at a new feeder. Even the ubiquitous house sparrow, while not particularly colourful, can lighten up any yard with its song.
As with most animals, the surest way to a bird’s heart is through its stomach (or gizzard). Winter feeding helps supplement birds’ natural diets, giving them much needed nourishment and energy when they most need it. That’s why feeders and food are a great place to start when “birdscaping” your yard for winter.
Feeder placement is important. Position your feeders where merlins, hawks and cats can’t pick off the diners. Having bushes and foliage nearby can offer an easy escape route for songbirds when a predator is lurking. Be mindful of windows, though—while you’ll likely want to stick a feeder or two where you can watch, you don’t want window strikes to become a problem.
As for seed, oil and fat-rich seed is a solid option for winter. Think suet, peanuts, sunflower or nyjer. Black oil sunflower in particular is loved by smaller birds as the thin shells are easy to open, making it perhaps the best choice for attracting a diverse crowd. Cracked corn and thick-shelled safflower will mainly attract larger birds, and the latter’s bitter taste may ensure that backyard bullies like squirrels or jays don’t steal it all.
Besides keeping your feeder full, you should also regularly clean it. Food can be contaminated by mold or droppings, leading to disease outbreaks.
Besides food, other elements to keep in mind include water and shelter. A heated bird bath or a feeder with a water element attached will help bring in more birds. Having a few coniferous trees around will also make a yard more attractive. These provide warm, safe roosts where birds can huddle together, hidden from the cold and predators. Chickadees, for example, are fond of spruce trees, where they might find refuge in the large, rectangular holes left by pileated woodpeckers, another common winter bird here.
As for when to start prepping your yard for winter, the early bird gets the worm, so to speak. Start in autumn by leaving your leaf litter where it is. Not only is it free compost, but it will also provide food, water and shelter for birds, with the bonus that they’ll quickly learn to recognize your yard for the safe haven it is.
A number of stores in Edmonton specialize in wild bird supplies and know-how. In Edmonton, check out Wild Bird General Store (780-439-7333) on the south side or Wild Birds Unlimited (587-521-2473) near downtown for more information. Other spots include Greenland Garden Centre in Sherwood Park (780-467-7557) and Prairie Gardens in Bon Accord (780-921-2272).
Bird feeders come in many different styles—and with a range of price tags. Below is a low-cost and low-waste feeder that you can easily make at home
Materials: pine cone, all-natural peanut butter, wild bird food and string