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Backyard Birdwatching In Winter

When winter arrives, some of us are tempted to hibernate. If you’re one of those who just don’t like cold weather, birdwatching in your own backyard can be enjoyed while staying inside.

There are about a dozen birds in Manitoba that can be enticed to a feeder during the winter, and watching them out a kitchen or living room window can become a daily event if you provide the right types of birdfeed. Although mixed-seed birdfeed is available at many stores – and it’s cheaper – this type of feed has a lot of waste in it, for many birds will pick out only the kind they prefer, ignoring wheat, milo and barley. It’s better to purchase specific kinds of seed.

Black-capped chickadees are one of the easiest varieties to attract. They are particularly fond of the small black-oil type of sunflower seeds, which you can buy separately. Nuthatches – both the white-breasted and red-breasted varieties – also prefer these sunflower seeds. Like chickadees, they soon adapt to people being near and can often be enticed to a feeder set close to a window.

Blue jays are more timid of people but will come to a feeder set farther away from windows. They eat sunflower seeds as well as corn, and they really love peanuts. I save a few corncobs each fall and they will pick the kernels off the cob. I also try to find a sunflower field after it has been harvested, to pick up a few missed heads.

Woodpeckers are another favourite at birdfeeders. The small downy woodpecker and its larger cousin the hairy woodpecker are attracted by sunflowers and suet. Again, commercial suet blocks are available, but many birds don’t particularly like these, preferring homemade suet blocks. I buy suet, melt it and add some peanut butter, shelled sunflower seeds, cornmeal and oatmeal to make my own blocks. I also use a log with holes or grooves dug into it and fill those with the mixture. This is the woodpeckers’ favourite.

Another bird that may be attracted to feeders is the American goldfinch. In recent years a fair number have stayed all winter, though they normally migrate. I’ve had them for the last two or three years – perhaps an indication of the effect of warmer winters. Goldfinches are not so easily recognized in the winter, since they have their much duller winter plumage. Their favourite treat is niger seed. It’s expensive, but worthwhile if you want to attract these birds. If you do buy the seed and don’t have goldfinches over winter, use it in the spring to attract the returning birds. A tube feeder or a thistle sock is best for niger seed, although the smaller birds are also ground feeders.

The pine siskin and common redpoll also enjoy niger seed. These often appear for a few weeks over the winter. Other seed-eating birds that may come to feeders – not every year but on occasion – are purple finches, house finches, evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks and cross-bills – all of which love sunflower seeds. Of course the English (house) sparrow also frequents feeders in winter, sometimes in larger numbers than you want, since the presence of too many may keep other birds away.

One way to attract birds is to offer a source of water. Last winter I bought an electric heated bird bath. At first the birds seemed a little leery of it, but before long they were using it to get a drink and – on warmer days – to bathe. I kept it going all winter long.

If you watch your yard and feeders carefully you never know what you might see. For the last couple of years, besides the goldfinches which stayed all winter, a mourning dove overwintered here. (It doesn’t appear to have stayed this fall.) A couple of juncos stayed last year, too. I also occasionally see a Cooper’s hawk swoop through searching for a live meal, and last winter a boreal owl spent a couple of hours dozing in the backyard.

Another frequent visitor to my feeders – one that some people don’t want – is a red squirrel. A baffle can be used on a pole feeder to help keep squirrels away, but personally I’m happy to see one to add to my daily list of sightings – even if it does steal the birdfeed!

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