Birds are especially valued because they come to us, to our backyards. Our first memory is, for many, of a robin that frequented our childhood vegetable garden. And, most who become actively involved in watching birds begin by feeding birds in the winter, or by putting up a nest box. Here is how best to attract birds to your Valley garden, all year around.
There are two kinds of people who feed birds - those who love 'em all, and those who don't. The former happily fill convenient silo feeders with "wild bird seed" winter and summer, and are content with the world. There are enough of them that at least 400 tons of seed mix are sold in the Valley each year.
Then there are the others. They scan books on attracting birds like our parents did Dr. Spock. They spend hours in voluble prayer for deliverance from squirrels, pigeons, house sparrows, whatever. Are evening grosbeaks golden treasures, or "grospigs"? Are you afraid that your kids will copy a blue jay stuffing its face, or do you hope that they will admire the glorious blue of its coat and its rich vocabulary? No matter, someone agrees with you. One Pine Glen resident stopped putting out seed because she was bored with so many goldfinches. A Stittsville household hopes for a repeat of the glorious time when an estimated 50,000 redpolls descended on their yard full of feeders.
Some indulge in even worse torture to the mind. Should birds be fed at all? Don't they get lazy coming to a feeder? If you feed birds in the summer, at least one neighbour is sure to suggest this notion. (Ornithologists say "no".) One Gloucester neighbour took the idea a stage farther, and erected a whirligig Tweety-bird and Sylvester as close to a feeder as he could, in hopes of saving the souls of a few of the birds. (The bird lover answered with a plaster statue of St. Francis, the Roman Catholic patron saint of birds. He fed birds all year around.)
Don't feeders entice birds to stay here, when they should migrate? Again, ornithologists say "no". Birds whose genes reflect their species' history leave here long before their natural food runs out. Nature's seed and berry supply rarely runs low before January.
Don't feeders encourage misfits to survive in violation of nature? Every year, it is true, many birds, due to some flaw, do not migrate as they should. A few are attracted to the area of a feeder during their last days. But, such birds as the Christmas 1984 black-throated green warbler in Hull will not survive the winter, feeders or no feeders. Birds that stay here successfully to expand their range are generally non-migrants, such as cardinals. They need only suitable food to handle winter temperatures. We have done so much to curtail many bird ranges through destruction of food-providing wetlands. (Roger Tory Peterson once estimated that half a billion birds had been eliminated from North America "by the simple process of digging ditches".) Why shouldn't we take a bit of satisfaction when we help expand some? Go for it!
When should you feed? Start putting food out before snow arrives. Birds tend to have settled down by then. One Alta Vista resident even claims that just one early-winter weekend spent chasing house sparrows away from his feeder frees him of them for the rest of the winter. If you are starting to feed at a new location, it may take a while to attract clientele. Start with white bread on the ground. It's more visible than a small feeder.
Many books insist that once you start feeding, you must keep feeding until spring. The basis for the argument is true: a chickadee has only a few hours in reserve on a cold winter morning to find an alternate food source. But, banding data from urban Ottawa calls this conventional wisdom into question. You may think that the same birds come to your feeder all winter. In fact, in urban areas at least, most are different birds all the time. A single backyard in Carlingwood nets almost 3000 individual birds over the year. The big numbers are all winter feeder birds: 1100 pine siskins (but an average of only 17 on those days when any siskin was present), 650 goldfinches (average, 8), 450 purple finches (average, 11). An urban-dwelling bird here seems to cover a dozen food sources during a winter. If you stop feeding, it knows where other food is. So, don't be put off by vague worries that you might have to go away during the winter. There are 25,000 other feeders around you!
It's a tradition in my family to stick the Christmas tree in a snowdrift on the New Year, then festoon it with suet for the birds. When the tree topples, winter is declared over.
Feeding in the summer is likely to be rewarding only if you live in an area with lots of mature trees and hedges, or if you are happy surrounded by house sparrows and grackles. To watch adult cardinals and blue jays introduce their young to your feeder can be worth any number of grating grackles. (Don't expect every neighbour to agree.)
One family in west Ottawa has happily counted 24 young cardinals since starting summer feeding in 1974. Another watched Ottawa's first ever lark sparrow from her kitchen window for a week during June 1984, as it joined three fledgling crows who came for a hardboiled egg twice a day.
You are going to feed birds, then. What food is the best?
If birds are given the choice, more species prefer cracked corn than any other food. But, cracked corn has two flaws. First, it attracts too many birds for some, specifically pigeons and house sparrows. More seriously, if pure cracked corn is fed in a silo feeder, the bottom gets wet from rain or snow, the moisture wicks right up to the top, and the result rapidly resembles set concrete. So, corn has to be fed on a tray. The tray has to be swept clear of snow by the watcher, and is swept clear of corn by howling wind, both at frequent intervals in our winters. Despite these problems, it's a great feed if you appreciate birds as they are.
Whole sunflower seed is the most popular feed with bird watchers. It's clean looking, flows easily in feeders, and is the favourite of many of our most colourful winter species--finches, chickadees, nuthatches and jays. It's expensive though, and half of those kilograms are hulls that have to be cleaned up. A flock of evening grosbeaks can indeed be almost too much of a good thing. There are two main types of sunflower seed, grey-striped and black (oilseed). The large finches love the oilseed, even feeder-shy pine grosbeaks are attracted to it, but smaller birds, including house sparrows, have difficulty breaking it up. It's great! (When this book was published, few outlets carried it; now Ritchie Feed & Seed sells almost as much of it as the striped.)
The most popular food with the general public is "wild bird mix". It usually contains grains such as wheat, chosen to keep the price low, rather than those that birds choose if they have the choice. It is true that modern wheat contains almost as much protein as insects, but it's also true that essentially the only birds that have adapted to this development are house sparrows and pigeons. A high quality mix will include salt and grit, valuable to birds in winter, will be finely and evenly cracked to minimize waste, and will contain a variety of grains chosen to provide a "balanced diet". Still, food preference studies make the choice clear. If you think people know what is best for birds, feed wild bird mix. If you think the birds do, don't.
Mixing whole sunflower seed with anything else is generally a waste. Birds that prefer sunflower dump the surrounding seed on the ground the way kids dump candy wrappers around a corner store. The same is generally true of mixing grey-striped and oilseed sunflower. If you have enough house sparrows around though, you can get away with anything, even feeding wheat or rice kernels that no bird will touch if it has a choice. Once all other food has run out, the sparrows will clean up the leftovers.
After seeds, you probably think of rendered fat, formed into cakes with a ridiculous assortment of additives. Really, the raw fat, hung in a mesh bag that onions come in, works fine. So does plain peanut butter smeared on some bark. (The widely-held belief that peanut butter sticks in birds' throats is not held by most ornithologists.) But if you must be the chef, mix rendered fat with a bit of peanut butter for taste, add cornmeal until stiff, then dip large pine cones into the mixture. Hang suet on a tree trunk if you have one - most suet eaters are used to bark underfoot. If suet goes rancid in summer, birds don't seem to mind. A pair of white-breasted nuthatches in Cumberland raised two healthy broods of young while feeding enthusiastically throughout on a large ham rind that had been hung high in a tree early the preceding winter.
Finally, blue jays are particularly attracted to peanuts, pine siskins are claimed to love cracked buckwheat, and goldfinches seem to be the only species to eat whole flax. Hummingbirds take sugar water, 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, changed every few days to avoid fermentation. (They eat insects for protein.) Niger seed is very attractive to small finches. But at its price, Niger is worth it only to a feeder fanatic.
Feeding on the ground has two advantages. All birds will eat on the ground. Many feed only on it. (Just keep the feeder away from cover for neighbours' cats.) Also, birds such as blue jays, that normally exclude all other birds from a feeder on a pole, allow mutual feeding when on the ground. I have seen a dozen house sparrows, the local family of three young blue jays, and several grackles feeding together in and around one small tray.
So, your basic strategy should be: cracked corn on or near the ground on a tray, whole sunflower seed in a silo at head height, and suet on a tree trunk. Decentralize. Don't put everything so close together that one bird or squirrel can monopolize things. Keep feeders dry and clean so that seed doesn't get mouldy. Some moulds produce toxins that are dangerous for birds.
If you feel that you have a pigeon problem, try tying evergreen branches over the top of your feeder so the food slot is heavily shaded - it might help. Many who feed in summer use only sunflower seed or Niger, restricted to a freely-swinging feeder that house sparrows find awkward to use.
There is no doubt about it - "grey" squirrels (most in urban Canada are black coloured, not grey) can be a problem. They are less territorial than red squirrels are, so their population grows impossibly. They eat appalling quantities of sunflower seed, and chew up plastic feeders to get the last few grains out. They occasionally rip open mesh bags and abscond with suet, too. Then, come spring, they go after our tulips.
Some squirrels can jump 3 meters horizontally from a fence, others 2 meters vertically from the ground. One in Carson's Grove jumped regularly from the top of a 3-story apartment building, and hit the feeder every time I saw it. They climb small metal poles as easily as trees. As for telephone wires and clotheslines, they might as well be a red carpet!
The most reliable squirrel stopper is a slightly flexible flat steel disk, 60 cm in diameter. Mount it loosely on the pole below the feeder, so it will tip and dump a squirrel that grabs the edge. Although most squirrels don't jump more than a meter straight up, you may have to put it 2 meters above snow level, and use a stool to fill the feeder. If a tree branch extends within 5 meters, at any height, you may need another disk above the feeder. Such disks are also effective on each side of a clothesline-supported feeder that can be reeled in to a balcony to be filled.
A one gallon paint tin, mounted open side down, encircling the pole, stops most squirrels (but not all). A bundle of thorny (shrub rose) twigs tied under a feeder may work, and looks more natural than metal. Few squirrels seem to eat pure cracked corn, so ground feeding need not be a problem.
Other rodents, specifically rats and mice, can be kept at bay by feeding well away from cover, and by storing seed in steel garbage cans with latching lids. Storing seed in an unheated shed, that gets some sun to keep it from being too damp, will also prevent bugs and overly-smart raccoons from being a problem.
Real bird lovers understand that predators such as sharp-shinned
hawks are a part of nature too. (All members of the animal kingdom
must eat other living things. Everything we eat was as alive as
birds are.) But, hawks are part of nature because they must survive in
it. Household cats need not. With no restrictions of food supply or
of shelter from the worst days, cats are free to pillage when they
choose. If you care for birds around your house, you will keep your
cat indoors, and persuade your neighbours to do the same. Urban
residents can call the "dog catcher" to help with persistent
offenders, in some municipalities. (Rural residents normally use more
Tons of unreasonably toxic chemicals are used because we do not weigh their cost to our environment. Few farmers can survive economically without using increasingly lethal substances in increasing quantity, because we insist on buying the cheapest corn-fed beef and the glossiest looking fruit, rather than those grown by methods that take our environment into account. We poison birds by the thousands because we prefer an artificially green lawn and impeccable shrubs to a healthy environment. As Pogo put it, "We have met the enemy and he is us".
The following sections deal with attracting birds during their breeding season, when they will eat food grown in your neighbourhood. If you act on any of these suggestions, think before you spray. If a chemical is claimed to have any effect on "pests", it almost certainly will kill some birds.
Small quantities of pests of all types can be found around the
average home. Many will not get out of hand if you do not spray. Many
common pesticides destroy essential soil organisms, producing
compacted soil in which little will grow well. You might as well
plant dandelions as use them. Some plants, such as white birch and
viburnum, are notorious for requiring pesticides to survive. If you
love birds, replace them with plants which do not have such problems here.
Most lawn-spray companies, for economy of application, mix their chemicals to deal with the worst lawns within the area covered by their day's work. A few, however, now routinely spray only with fertilizer, spot-spraying with pesticides only as needed. These companies also tend to be the ones that advise you on non-chemical methods of improving your lawn, thus reducing your need for chemicals. Ask! Then, get a written contract specifying the chemicals and quantities that will be used. Or, do it yourself, using the information sheets of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton.
If you want worm-eating birds such as robins to survive around your home, you will have to persuade those around you to take care with pesticides too. A baby robin eats 4 meters of earthworms a day, six backyards' worth. It takes very little poison residue per worm to accumulate enough to kill a robin. In my neighbourhood, where the lawn-spray trucks prowl, not a single robin used to survive the year, young or adult, until the CWS succeeded in restricting their use of diazinon in 1986. All summer long birds drifted in, one by one, from nearby woods to fill the void, only to succumb in their turn.
Nature provides no "street-proofing" classes for robins. They can't read "Poison - Keep Off" signs. When it comes to man-made chemicals, it's up to us!
Point out to your neighbours that ants eat many destructive insects, and are themselves food for birds that visit. Some foresters even cultivate ants, for it has been shown that the trees are healthier that way. Once a lawn is healthy, you will soon have a hard time finding such insects as grasshoppers or earwigs on lawns where birds feed. Birds love them. And, the best white grub control of all is a nestbox full of young starlings.
In the Valley, 28 species of birds nest in cavities, and might be lured to stay near you by a suitable bird box. In nature there are rarely enough nesting cavities to go around. The populations of tree swallows and bluebirds in particular seem to be limited primarily by the availability of nest sites, not by food. So, concocting an easy-to-build nest box can really help birds. (To a bird, the perfect bird box is one that gets built!) Here is a recipe.
The Material: rough-sawn 1x6 inch cedar. The Back: 20 cm long, has two holes for mounting screws. The Sides: 20 cm long. The Top: overhangs back and sides by 1 cm, the front by 5 cm; has drip slots all around. The Bottom: has corners cut out 5 mm for drainage and ventilation. The Front: 20 cm long, has no perch to aid enemies, has a precisely-sized entrance hole, just below the top so a cat's paw can't reach the nestlings. Nail all pieces together, except the front, with fence (galvanized spiral) nails. After fastening the box to a fence or wall, attach the front with two brass round-head screws so it can easily be opened for cleaning each fall.
The Location: height 2 meters or more, so a cat can't jump up and grab the bird as it enters or leaves. Barn swallows, house sparrows, starlings, and most birds that will use the top of the house for nesting, prefer to be under the eaves of a house. Put it up in a visible place, as if it were a hole in a dead tree or fencepost. Healthy leafy trees don't have cavities. Birds don't seem to look in such places for nest holes. I have an experimental box at the top of a high cedar hedge that has gone unused for five years now, while identical boxes on the side of the house have been occupied every year. The best location for a box is near a habitat edge, where lawn gives way to shrubs or trees.
The only critical dimension is the entrance hole. Make it just large enough for the nester, so it's too small for more powerful competitors and predators: 3 cm for a house wren, chickadee or nuthatch, 4 cm for a tree swallow or bluebird. An oval tree swallow hole 3 cm high and 5 cm wide keeps starlings away. Eastern phoebe and, as you can see above, robins, will use the top of the box if it is sheltered from direct sun. If you have a problem with squirrels enlarging the hole in hopes of a nesting spot for themselves, line the inside of the front with aluminum sheet (not foil) - it doesn't stop them from trying, but it keeps them from succeeding.
If you wish to attract purple martins, choose a location within a few hundred meters of an existing occupied house, then put up a duplicate. They require a copious supply of flying insects. Contrary to legend, mosquitoes form only a small part of their diet. (Barn swallows are the real mosquito eaters.) Martins are fussy about their nesting grounds, and many martin houses are never occupied except by starlings or house sparrows.
Never finish anything for living creatures with wood preservatives. One application of pentachlorophenol or creosote will kill nestlings for years to come. Pressure-treated materials often contain arsenic, a poison forever. Leave the cedar unfinished or paint with non-toxic acrylic (exterior latex) paint.
Put up only one box per species per 3000 square meters. With a woodland lot, try a 20x20 cm box 30 cm high with a 5 cm hole, placed a bit into the woods. You might get lucky with a flicker or a great-crested flycatcher. (In the city you will get starlings in any box with an entrance hole larger than 4 cm.)
Clean nest boxes out thoroughly after the young have left. For most birds, raising young is a race with lice and fleas raising theirs! A clean new nest gives the birds a head start. Few parasites of birds have any effect on humans, but some moulds that grow on old nests can cause strong allergic reactions in some people. Avoid breathing in dust from nest boxes.
Good architecture provides sustenance for a body and space for a soul. Bird architecture, or habitat, must too. (A bird's soul is conventionally called instinct. We don't know how to prove that a bird thinks it has a soul.) As our cities become more architecturally stable, more birds will adapt to them, and we will all be happier. Eastern North America as a whole supports about four breeding birds per hectare. Suburban areas support up to ten times this number, where people care about birds.
You don't want to build just one "bird building" to go with your home, though. You want a town, to provide for many different species of bird in your yard. That calls for variety. To improve habitat, look at what you have, then plant something else. In a solidly treed lot, a chain saw is the best habitat creator ever invented. (Pruning shears are not!) Those endless stretches of 2,4-D-purified grass so beloved by parks commissioners are nearly sterile.
Birds' architecture uses vegetation for protection from weather, support for nesting, and escape from predators. For weather cover, thick cedar hedging is the Ottawa specialty. Balsam fir and spruce are good too. For nesting cover, a thorny shrubby jungle (for birds like song sparrows) and high mature trees (for others, such as rose-breasted grosbeaks) make birds feel secure. A small shrub that stands alone is poor for nesting, for a bird wants to conceal its comings and goings. A deciduous tree with lots of small branches is good escape cover. Birds best evade the predator they can see to dodge.
Valley residents have two special problems as avian architects. Most books on attracting birds are written for climates much milder than ours, and most of their recommended plants can not survive here. Unfortunately, many of our garden supply firms operate according to the maxim that "the customer is right even if he is wrong", and will sell you all the plants you ask for, whether they will grow here or not. If you are unfamiliar with horticulture, I recommend that you deal with a firm with sufficient integrity to refuse to sell unsuitable plants - Artistic Landscape Design in Ottawa is one I trust - or that you ask Agriculture Canada about the hardiness of your major purchases.
In nature, architecture provides food as well as shelter. Some food trees suited to small Valley lots are: dwarf North Star cherry, with nice blooms and loads of thrush-attracting fruit in July. Crabapples that don't drop their fruit when ripe, especially Profusion, for waxwings and pine grosbeaks in winter. Mountain ash - avoid ash selected for fruit so bitter that the birds won't eat it, some people prefer decorative fruit to birds! Morden hawthorn is a superb bird tree, but should not be planted where red-cedar (Juniperus virginana) grows as these two combine to support a very destructive rust.
Shrubs provide even more food and cover per square meter than trees, and they bear fruit faster too. Consider Russian olive, silverberry (Shepherdia argentea), apple serviceberry, amur honeysuckle, common elderberry and snowberry. Bittersweet and wild grape vines are good for birds too. To attract hummingbirds, plant bergamot, honeysuckle, morning glory, petunias, phlox, scarlet runner beans and tiger lilies.
In summer, provide water that birds can hear, splashing in a shallow pond, near a deciduous tree for a preening perch, and away from cat cover. The cheapest bath is a garbage can lid on the ground. The best is a sloping puddle lined with building plastic, just deep enough (15 cm) at the center to cover a little pond pump.
Helpful nesting material will also attract birds in the spring - stick cotton batting, dryer fluff, feathers, or torn-up cloth in a suet feeder or in a hedge (not in the bird box).
Is your lot one of those 2-5 hectare "estate lots"? Don't "clean the place up" from one end to the other! Brush is beautiful to wild creatures. Leave some. Plant a Siberian crabapple or Black Cherry (they are large). Black Cherry blossoms appear early in the spring, and the small green seed starts to form immediately. At this time of year it is a favourite feed for birds, and by the end of June almost all of the immature fruit will have been turned into healthy birds. Or, try a group of bayberry or silver buffaloberry shrubs or white ash trees. (These three are one-sex-to-a-plant. Only the female ash trees have seeds.) If your large trees lack variety, add nut-bearing kinds. Although these do "grow" squirrels, they also attract grouse, partridge and nuthatches.
Girdle a tree of a common variety (to kill it) every two or three years to attract woodpeckers. Look at your land through the eyes of a bird, to appreciate the beauty of an old hollow tree laden with nutritious fungi and insects.
If you are a rural resident, you have even more options. Create a colourful bramble patch with Grootendorst roses. (They are less rampant spreaders than multiflora roses, and bloom from June to October.) To enjoy an overwintering robin, or pine grosbeaks, plant a staghorn sumac clump, where you can mow around it for at least 3 meters to prevent it taking over everything. Manchurian bamboo provides attractive cover and insect food for vireos, catbirds and sparrows. It needs a mowing strip too. Finally, plant an evergreen or two for shelter and nesting, white pine in moist areas, red pine in dry.
Surround a patch with shrubs, for edge effect and to restrict wind-blown seeds. Let it grow wild with seed-bearing weeds, like lambsquarters, which hold their seeds through the winter. The birds will soon plant those they like the best, for many seeds are designed to sprout after passage through a bird's gizzard. Mow once a year, in the spring, to keep it weedy.
I must note here that the Ontario Weed Act prescribes the extermination, throughout the entire province, of 23 species of plants, including all thistles and milkweed. You might wish to consider whether or not goldfinches that use thistles for winter food, and monarch butterflies that can raise their young only on milkweeds, have an equal right to demand our extermination. To nature there is no such thing as a "weed".
Don't forget that you are part of nature too. Lay out the plants and feeders so that you have a good viewing window. It should be in a room without a window opposite, so birds won't be alarmed by your movement, and with a good overhang to shade the glass from direct sun. Make it a comfortable spot for knitting or reading, and relax with your new-found avian friends.