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Expert Advice: Create the Habitat & They Will Come

June 8, 2022 Written by Audra Cooper

By Myrna Pearman

Create the Habitat and They Will Come

People who enjoy feeding backyard birds often have wider interests in nature and are engaged in a range of outdoor activities, from gardening and hiking to birding and wildlife photography. In many cases, backyard birds have sparked an interest in these other pursuits.  

Backyard bird feeding enthusiasts are also cognizant that feeding birds is just one of the many ways individual landowners can support biodiversity and encourage wildlife to share our yards and gardens. The most effective—and rewarding—way to attract birds (and other wildlife!) is to create suitable habitats.

Creating habitat entails providing space within which birds can find the necessities of life, namely foodwater , and shelter. While the food, water, and shelter components of habitat are easily described, the concept of space is less often considered. Most folks view space in the two-dimension—the square footage of a yard, balcony, water feature etc. But habitat is three-dimensional, with creatures occupying space from as high in the sky as birds migrate to as deep in the soil as microbial activity takes place.  When considered thus, substantial volumes of habitat can be offered, even in relatively small backyards.

Creating habitat can be as basic as eschewing cosmetic pesticides, then planting trees/shrubs, and setting out nestboxes, feeding stations and/or bird baths. A more ambitious and multifaceted undertaking would be to replace expanses of lawn with appropriate plantings of wildlife-attracting trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals and ground covers, allow sections of your yard to support underbrush, and to offer additional water features and structural attractants (rockpiles, brush piles, etc.).

Properties that are located adjacent to wetlands, parks or other natural areas will more quickly attract a greater diversity of wildlife species than those located in new subdivisions. But be patient—it doesn’t take long for trees and shrubs to grow, and if you and your neighbours get together to create a larger and more complex tapestry of habitat, you will all soon have yards that are alive with bird song and activity.

Before you race off to start creating your bird-friendly yard, be sure to take the time to carefully plan, and break down your project into manageable chunks so that you can see the fruits of your labour without being overwhelmed. 

If you are keen on transforming some of your yard into lush and vibrant habitat, there are many online resources available that can help.

Backyard Bird Feeding & Avian Flu

May 6, 2022 Written by Audra Cooper

The H5N1 subtype of Avian Influenza virus is spreading in Canada. It is causing severe illness and mortality in domestic poultry flocks and has been detected in waterfowl and birds of prey. It is not currently considered a disease threat to songbirds, including species that frequent backyard feeders.

As of April 27, 2022, Environment and Climate Change Canada advises that the use of bird feeders is still safe on properties without domestic poultry. Since the situation is ever-changing, check out their webpage for the latest information and directives. https://www.canada.ca/en/environment-climate-change/services/migratory-game-bird-hunting/avian-influenza-wild-birds.html

To Minimize Risk:

  1. Prevent over-crowding at feeding stations: It is quite easy to minimize over-crowding at this time of year because Common Redpolls, which are the most common and widespread flock species in Alberta & Saskatchewan, have departed for their northern breeding grounds. The only other species that tend to flock in large numbers at this time of year are the non-native House Sparrows. To encourage resident House Sparrows to disperse (at least until the situation has stabilized), avoid offering mixes that contain millet, corn and milo. Instead, offer suet mixtures, peanut butter mixtures, and/or sunflower chips from tube feeders that have small portals. Even better use upside down tube feeders because House Sparrows cannot access the seeds from an upside-down position.

The other way to prevent over-crowding is to place feeders farther apart around your yard. Wide spacing of feeders will enable the less dominant birds to feed (reducing their wait times at crowded feeders, thus resulting in fewer concentrated droppings) and will result in fewer birds at each feeder.  If possible, move the feeders to new locations each week to minimize waste accumulating on the ground.

  1. Sanitation: Diseases spread between feeder birds through direct contact and via contaminated feces and saliva. Replacing tray feeders with tube and hopper feeders will reduce the risk of birds contacting each other and will prevent fecal contamination.

It is also important to keep feeding stations clean by washing them (including the perches) once a week with hot soapy water and/or a diluted bleach solution (1 part bleach to 9 parts water). Air dry them before adding more seed.

Cleaning the area under feeding stations is also important. While many ground-feeding birds, especially migrating native sparrows, prefer to feed on the ground, it is important to rake up the detritus that has accumulated over the winter. To reduce further accumulation, serve sunflower chips or “no mess” mixes containing only shelled seeds.

If you observe sick or dead birds. There is little you can do to help a bird once it has become ill. If feasible, stay with the bird (so it doesn’t disappear) and call your local wildlife rehabilitation center (see links below). Wildlife rehabbers follow strict protocols that have been provided to them by the Canadian Wildlife Service. Never touch a sick bird with your bare hands. If the bird has died, use rubber gloves to place it in a plastic bag. Place it in a second bag and dispose of it with household garbage. Sick and dead birds can also be reported to the Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative information line at 1-800-567-2033 or by using their online reporting tool.

  • Be proactive! The most significant contribution that individual landowners can make to supporting and conserving birds and other native wildlife is to provide habitat. High quality habitat (space within which wild creatures can find food, water and shelter) can be offered, even in small yards and gardens. Now is the perfect time to plan and start transforming your yard into a safe and healthy haven for our wild neighbors!

Wildlife Hotline in Saskatchewan:

https://www.savt.ca/2019/09/10/wildlife-rehabilitation-society-of-saskatchewan/

Resource for Updated Information: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/avian-influenza-outbreak-should-you-take-down-your-bird-feeders/

 

-Written by Myrna Pearman

 

 

 

April Migration - Myrna Pearman

April 26, 2022 Written by Audra Cooper

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April Migration

Spring is officially here! Some of the early migrants have already arrived while most species will be arriving and/or moving through the province throughout the month and into early May.

Spring migration is fraught with many challenges. Birds face harsh weather conditions, especially extreme spring storms, as well as such human-caused hazards such as habitat destruction, night-lit buildings, power lines and wind turbines.  The birds need to arrive early enough to claim a good territory, but not so early that their food supply isn’t yet available. 

There isn’t much we can do to help the early arriving insect-eating birds, but we can assist the seed eaters by keeping our backyard bird feeding stations topped up. The spring arrivals that show up in our yards and gardens can be hungry, so supplemental food will help boost their energy reserves. 

The most common early spring seed eaters that show up across the Canadian prairies are the American Tree Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos. These species are followed by Purple Finches as well as other native sparrow species, especially Chipping Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Lincoln’s Sparrows, White-throated Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows. Spring is a great time to pay attention to these native sparrows, as they are in breeding plumage and—although their coloration is not as striking as more brightly attired birds—they each have their own beauty and can be easily identified with careful observation.

April is the month when most bird feeding enthusiasts make an effort to clean up the mess of sunflower husks that have accumulated under their feeding stations all winter. Since sunflowers take a long time to degrade and contain allelochemicals (chemicals that suppress the growth of other plants), there is some controversy about whether sunflower hulls should be composted. The general consensus is that small quantities can be safely added to a compost pile, especially if it is actively maintained.  I rake up all the accumulations under my feeder each spring and scatter it in the nearby woods. 

Sunflowers and sunflower chips are excellent choices for both your regular feeder patrons as well as the seed-eating spring migrants. While I don’t usually recommend millet as a bird feeding staple, I highly recommend it at this time of year. Most of the migrating sparrows eagerly devour millet, so any of the Mother Nature’s products that contain millet can be used. Excellent blends include Epic, Songbird, Gourmet Feeder and Wildbird Premium. Once the Purple Finches show up, Finch Blend can be added.

While Purple Finches prefer tube or hopper feeders, native sparrows prefer to feed on the ground and tend to be quite shy. To accommodate these spring visitors, I recommend scattering small quantities of seed at a time in various places around your yard, especially near shrubs and under coniferous trees.  Observe which species come in and where they prefer to feed. Adjust quantities and feeding schedule accordingly.

Celebrating Bluebirds

March 10, 2022 Written by Audra Cooper

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Celebrating Bluebirds

March means spring! While it will be mid-April before most migrating birds start showing up or moving through Saskatchewan, two notable species—Mountain and Eastern Bluebirds—usually appear as early as mid-March. Both species are strikingly beautiful and, as secondary cavity nesters, will take up residence in nestboxes.

If you live on an acreage or farm within the range of either of these species and can offer them suitable habitat (short grass areas with a few scattered trees), you might want to join in the efforts to help these species by setting out boxes for them.

If you would like to learn more, I have just written a book about them for the North American Bluebird Society (NABS). This book—Get to Know Bluebirds: A Guide for Young Nature Lovers—was written for young adults but is an interesting and engaging resource for everyone. It is available as a downloadable PDF from the NABS website:  http://www.nabluebirdsociety.org/publications/ .

March represents the tail-end of winter, so it is important to keep your backyard bird feeding stations filled until the snow melts and the earth starts to reawaken. While the redpolls are still here, I suggest using Mother Nature’s® Medium Chips as well as Mother Nature’s® Finch Mix. 

Myrna Pearman is the Resident Naturalist & Backyard Bird Feeding Expert for Mother Nature’s®. She is also a keen nature writer, photographer and author of several books, available from www.myrnapearman.com . She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

For The Love of Birds: Nuthatches in February

February 14, 2022 Written by Audra Cooper

FEBRUARY NUTHATCH

 

February, despite the lengthening hours of daylight and being the shortest month of the year, is still locked in the full clutches of Old Man Winter. It can be long and dreary, so Valentines’ Day is the bright spot of the month for many Canadians.

February can also be a challenging month for our wild neighbours, each day a life-and-death struggle against the elements.  But for one of our common backyard species, the White-breasted Nuthatch, mid-winter is also a time for love!

White-breasted Nuthatches—so named for their habitat of “hacking” their food open—remain pair-bonded throughout the year and engage in their own Valentine rituals during the winter months. Pairs keep in touch with each other using a wide vocal repertoire of 13 distinct calls. Both sexes issue calls, most of which are a variation of the characteristic nasal “yank yank.” Only the males sing courtship and territorial songs.  

Nuthaches spend their days both caching and hunting for food morsels in the nooks and crannies of tree trunks and branches. They have the distinct habit of working their way from the top to the bottom of a tree trunk, headfirst. Interestingly, because they rely on memory to find cached food items, the hippocampus section of their brains is unusually large.

Unlike most bird species, whose hearing is most acute in the spring, nuthatch hearing is most acute in fall and winter. It is believed that this acuity helps paired birds communicate, enables them to locate invertebrates hidden under tree bark, and perhaps even helps them hear the wings of predators—a useful attribute for a species that feeds with its head down.

Despite being pair-bonded throughout the year and courting each other in the winter, recent research shows that there can be some skullduggery between the sexes. Apparently, male nuthatches have been known to watch where their mates cache food, then fly to the location and pilfer it. Females have grown wise to this trickery, as they have learned to wait at a feeding station until after the male has left with his own cache, then zip off with their morsel in the opposite direction!

Encourage nuthatches into your yard by offering them suet, shelled and unshelled sunflower seeds, and shelled and unshelled peanuts. For an ideal mix, try Mother Nature's Chickadee Nuthatch blend.  Add some enjoyment to your February by watching and listening to the Valentine overtures of these interesting wild neighbours.

-Myrna Pearman

 

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