Edmonton, Alberta

Questions & Answers About the Birds

Q: Will we see any Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins this winter?

Last year in Edmonton and area there were few if any Common Redpolls or Pine Siskins in evidence because a good seed cone crop in the northern boreal forest kept them north of us. The Edmonton Christmas Bird Count found none in the city last winter. But this winter we are expecting to see some of these birds at our feeders. In fact we know of at least three sightings of Pine Siskins in and around Edmonton already. Common Redpolls may start arriving between October and December. The appearance of these birds in our area depends on their food supply in the boreal forest. The annual Winter Finch Forecast for 2014/2015 is predicting that poor to average cone crops in the boreal forest this year means that these birds may come south looking for food. At bird feeders Redpolls and Siskins prefer nyjer seed or finch blends in tube feeders. Redpolls can be identified by the daub of red feathers on the top of their head, or “poll.” Siskins have striped bellies and telltale yellow bars on their wings.

Q: How can I attract woodpeckers to my yard?
It’s quite possible to attract woodpeckers to your yard by offering suet and nuts for them. Suet consists of rendered (melted) beef fat, often combined with nuts, fruit, or seeds and is the most popular with woodpeckers. Suet is usually offered in flat squares that can be placed in suet feeders which look like cages and come in a variety of designs. Because woodpeckers have stiff tail feathers used to prop themselves against a tree when pecking on trees in search of insects, some suet feeders come with a tail prop making it easier for them to use the feeder. They will sometimes feed on loose nuts and seeds in feeders as well. The most common of these birds in backyards is the Downy Woodpecker – a fun little bird with a checkered back. The males have a daub of red feathers on the back of their head. Larger than the Downy, but more commonly seen in the country, is the Hairy Woodpecker. Northern Flickers are occasional visitors to feeders. And if you are really lucky, you may be able to attract a Pileated Woodpecker, which is as large as a crow with a distinctive red crest on its head.

Q: What is the Christmas Bird Count?    
Christmas Bird Counts are annual, early-winter bird counts sponsored by Bird Studies Canada and the Audubon Society and involve more than 45,000 people from North and South America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Islands. Started by Frank Chapman with 27 friends on Christmas Day in 1900 as a way to protest bird-shooting contests, there are now about 1,700 counts held during December and January. Edmonton holds the record for the largest participation of any Christmas Bird Count in North America! It peaked at 1266 participants in 1987 but consistently has over 400 participants a year.
Many people participate in the count organized in Edmonton by the Edmonton Nature Club and birdlovers in the surrounding area each year. Counts will be in Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, Devon, Lac La Biche, Stony Plain, Tofield, Elk Island National Park, St. Albert, Strathcona County, Wabamun Lake, and Camrose. Beginners are welcome, and people can spend a few hours or the entire day counting birds.

Q: How can I keep Magpies away from my bird feeder?

This is a question we get asked a lot. Black-billed Magpies are part of the Corvid family related to Crows, Ravens, and Blue Jays – all very intelligent birds, which makes them tricky to deter. They can be noisy and aggressive and can dominate a feeder when they are in the yard. We recommend passive solutions which do not harm the birds but restrict or guide their behaviour. Magpies, Blue Jays, squirrels, and other birds such as Chickadees all love peanuts. If you put peanuts in the shell out in a separate feeder, this can draw Magpies away from your other feeders. Physical barriers such as placing a cage around the feeder that allows small birds to enter the feeder but not the larger ones can help. We have a “Dinner Bell” feeder with a rain/snow guard that can be lowered to cover the feeder tray and restrict access of larger birds. One of our customers has had success using a wireless doorbell, with the doorbell in the feeder being operated by remote control from the kitchen when a Magpie lands in the feeder, scaring it off. Fortunately Magpies are not in the yard all the time, which allows other birds plenty of time to access your feeder. Their population has increased over the years so these fascinating birds will continue to be a challenge.

Q: Where are the Redpolls this year (fall and winter 2013/14)?

Last winter we saw large numbers of Common Redpolls in Edmonton and area. But this winter there have been very few. The Edmonton Christmas Bird Count found just 144 Redpolls, compared to over 2000 last year. In St. Albert, none were seen at all. We suspected that might happen. Each year Ron Pittaway from Ontario produces a “Finch Forecast” that is pretty good at predicting the winter movement of finches, which includes Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins, common feeder birds. He bases the forecast on the crop of seed cones in the northern boreal forest. If it’s a good crop, which it was this year from Alaska to Atlantic Canada, we are less likely to see these species. Why fly south when these birds can stay in their northern summer range and have lots of food? To give you an idea of how good the cone crop was, one of our Edmonton customers picked up over 5000 seed cones off the ground under her 3 large spruce trees in her yard.

Q: Why am I hearing Chickadees singing?

I can hear one singing through the window as I write. As you listen, you’ll notice there are often two or more calling, almost singing counterpoint to one another. Males begin singing in mid-January with increasing frequency as the winter progresses with females joining in occasionally. If you think the song sounds like “Hi, sweetie” you’re right. It’s the males calling to attract potential mates.

Q: If I feed birds in the fall and winter, won’t that prevent them from migrating south?

Birds have natural rhythms they follow that are triggered by hormones or the shortening or lengthening of the day during Fall and Spring. The urge to migrate is also dependent on food supplies. Finches will stay further north if there is a good cone seed crop in the boreal forest, as there is this year. Climate warming and the presence of backyard feeders have influenced some birds to move further north. But when the time comes, birds will migrate. Hummingbirds, for example, arrive and depart from Alberta at very predictable times each year in part using the energy we have provided them with at our feeders. But they leave on their own schedule.

Q: If I put water out for the birds in winter won’t they freeze?

Birds need water year round and will drink and bath in open water in a heated bird bath during the winter. This serves several purposes. First, they benefit from a dependable source of water in your yard as it saves them time and energy not having to search for natural sources. If they can’t find open water they will eat snow, which requires energy to melt. Second, bathing helps keep their feathers clean and more effective in insulating them in our cold winters. On extremely cold winter nights, a bird can lose up to 10% of its body weight overnight to keep warm. In winter anything a bird can do to conserve energy helps them survive. It’s also very entertaining to watch birds in a bird bath!

Q: Do birds actually need food that I put out in feeders?

Birds get 75% or more of their food from natural sources, so they aren’t dependent on us putting food out for them. However, there are times throughout the year when the food we offer can make a difference in their survival rate. This has been demonstrated in various studies. Like us, birds need food energy to survive. Sometimes during winter, they find it difficult to locate food due to inclement weather. During these times they can use up valuable energy searching for food, or use up a lot of energy staying warm overnight. If they cannot find enough food to make up for this energy use, they will not survive.  By offering high energy and nutritious foods, we can help them survive during difficult times during the fall and winter. During the spring and summer, providing bird food helps the breeding success of parent birds, the survival of their young, the replacement of feathers during molting, and the build-up of energy reserves for fall migration.

Q: Is it possible to attract Hummingbirds to my yard in the city?

The short answer is "yes." As evidence, we can point to the results of an informal email poll we did of customers asking if they had hummingbirds in their yards during the summer of 2013. You can see their responses here. It shows sightings both in and outside of Edmonton. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds begin to arrive the middle of May, sometimes a little earlier. Sightings typically peak in August as the tiny birds store energy in their bodies by sipping nectar from flowers and hummingbird feeders in preparation for their long migration south. By the end of August most are gone although there are always a few that linger into early September.