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Taking care of the winter birds

Providing the right conditions will help to attract them to your yard

It has been a few years since my wife and I have stayed in Manitoba for the winter but this year we are staying home. One result of this decision is that we will be able to enjoy the birds that frequent the feeders in our front yard. Winter birds are a real treat to watch; they bring life to a rather stark outdoor landscape and provide enjoyment when we have more time to sit and watch them.

Although some methods of attracting birds to the feeder in the winter are similar to those used for attracting them in the summer, there are a few things that can be done to get the maximum number of visitors.

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Winter weather is severe! If it isn’t bitterly cold then it might very well be windy, so locate the feeders in a sheltered spot. Trees and shrubs located to the north and west of the feeding area will protect it from most of the prevailing winds. If it is possible to locate the feeders so that they are both exposed to direct sunlight and sheltered from the north and west, the birds will be happy to bask in the sunshine while feeding.

As well as providing protection from winds, the vegetation provides birds with landing sites that they’ll use when approaching the feeders. It is not common to see birds fly directly to a feeder; they more often alight on a branch of a tree or shrub and scout for danger before finally landing on a feeder. They will also appreciate nearby vegetation into which they can fly when disturbed by any kind of perceived danger while feeding.

If thickets of shrubbery can be located near feeding areas, the environment will be more naturalistic and the birds will use it for protection as well as for feeding. It is not unusual to see them feeding on seeds or berries on shrubs such as cedars and cotoneaster or hopping around under shrubs (unless the snow is unusually deep) looking for food.

Providing a variety of food in separate feeders means more birds will use the area and there will be less competition for space at the feeders. Finch feeders will satisfy those birds that prefer canola or niger seed, while sunflower seeds will keep nuthatches, blue jays and chickadees happy. Mesh bags used by grocers to package onions and other produce can be used to hold pieces of suet, which is a favourite for woodpeckers, although chickadees, nuthatches and blue jays will feed on suet as well. Tie these bags onto tree branches high enough so that they are not accessible to roaming animals.

Red squirrels can be a nuisance at feeders on warm days during the winter; they scare away the birds and eat a lot of the food — mostly going after sunflower seeds — so a squirrel-proof feeder may be necessary.

Bags of suet and finch feeders do not suffer when it snows, but seeds in any platform feeders will soon get covered during any snowfalls, so should have roofs to prevent this. Although the roofs are necessary, the feeders must be open enough on the sides so the birds feel safe when entering them. Cautious birds are hesitant to enter a feeder that prevents them from seeing out to catch sight of approaching danger.

If the feeders are located near an area of the garden that contains perennials, the birds will have another source of food — a natural one — which will certainly help to entice more of them. Native plants often hang on to their seeds for the winter, so perennials like goldenrod and heliopsis, as well as annuals like ageratum, ornamental grasses and poppies can be left in the garden for the birds to enjoy. Most of these plants are tall and robust enough that they will remain upright even after heavy snowfalls, keeping their seed heads exposed.

Some avid birders even provide their feathered friends with water during the winter. Special heaters can be purchased that fit into bird baths to keep the water from freezing so that the birds can access the water to drink. They will not bath in the water if the air temperature is low, instinctively knowing that getting wet in frigid weather is not a good idea. They will, however, drink it. If no open water is provided, birds will either melt snow in their beaks or under their feathers to obtain water or from a natural source such as a fast-moving current in a river, but a heated bird bath will provide one more feature to attract them to your yard.

Feeding birds during the winter provides us with hours of enjoyment and also helps our feathered friends survive even the most severe weather. Be sure to erect feeders where you can see them from your windows. This way the birds will benefit from the food and you will get the pleasure of watching them from the comfort of your home.

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