Enjoy The Latest Articles Written by WBU Team Members
By Erin Dykstra
(Published in the Fall 2020 Edition of Gardener's Gate)
As the bright, fresh green of mid-summer deepens, gardeners have the opportunity to take a deep breath. The fields turn golden, the sun glows low in the evening sky, and growth quietly decelerates. What has been a hectic summer of pruning and shaping, planting and uprooting, weeding and watering, tenderly turns to the serene satisfaction of harvest. The trees become lit from within, entreating us to enjoy our “second spring” before the wind carries it to the ground. Digging up the last of the potatoes, gathering in the carrots, and placing the tulip bulbs for next season are enriched by the calls of the Canadian Geese flying in their V’s overhead. Beginning in August and stretching throughout the intensifying autumn, over 300 species of birds prepare to leave their northerly nesting grounds to spend their winter in warmer climates. Magical migration is taking place.
After a period of molting, a process during which birds replace all or part of their feathers with new ones, birds are busy gathering food to provide themselves with the nutrients needed to travel the long distances to their wintering grounds. Migration is triggered by a combination of changes in day length and food supply, lowering temperatures, and genetic predisposition. It is an astonishingly dangerous affair, this migration. Birds face challenges such as inclement weather, predation, collisions with structures, and the loss of suitable habitat and food sources along the way. It is estimated that almost half of all birds do not survive their combined trips north and south each year. However, with the cold pressing in, the birds who travelled here only a few months ago to enjoy the luxury of space for nesting, abundant food supply, and long daylight hours by which to hunt and forage to feed their young, must now risk the journey south or freeze.
By having a patient eye, bird watchers are generously rewarded during migration. Birds are on the move. They gather in fields and wetlands, and often, in backyards where nutrients are plentiful, to prepare for migration. The probability of seeing a greater diversity of birds is greatly increased during migration. It is not unusual for the keen observer to spot warblers, hummingbirds, finches, and even orioles in the canopy above. Without having to travel far, the avian enthusiast can enjoy one of nature’s greatest wonders and possibly assist a weary migrant with a bird-friendly habitat.
To help birds replenish their fuel for migration, high-energy and high-fat foods can be provided. Black oil sunflower seeds, sunflower chips, tree nuts, peanuts, suet, and mealworms are excellent foods to help birds build up their stored body fat. Providing a water source is another way to attract migrating birds to a backyard. When rainfall is less common and ponds freeze over at night, birds are drawn to open water and are more likely to stop for a drink at a heated bird bath to hydrate and clean their feathers. By using the natural landscape to their advantage, gardeners can create a space where birds can stop for a rest. Natural cover, in the form of trees and shrubs, affords birds a shield from predators and a buffet of natural seeds and bugs on which to dine. Autumn is an opportunity to attend to bird feeding stations; ensuring feeders are clean, the surrounding ground is raked of fallen seed and droppings, and feeders are brought in close to the house to allow for ease of filling once the snow begins to accumulate.
Although difficult to imagine, our climate is the balmy winter that some birds travel to. Consider the Common and Hoary Redpoll, the Bohemian Waxwing, and the Snowy Owl – there are many species that are moving into the area as the summer nesters move out. The hurry and flurry of nesting and nurturing young is replaced with the captivating urgency of surviving the harsh elements that winter brings. Keeping in step with nature and allowing it settle inside us, we can find enjoyment, relaxation, and involvement in a world that is larger than our own. The turning of the seasons is a reminder to renew the wonder of observing the birds, their habits, and the charm of the amazing world around us.
Adding Beauty, Attracting Wild Birds
By Erin Dykstra
(Published in the Summer 2020 edition of Gardener's Gate)
I’ve been asked the question “which literary character are you most like?”. The answer is, naturally (for me anyways), Mrs. Dolly Bantry. Friend of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, and avid gardener, she is often surreptitiously glancing at a gardening catalogue instead of making small talk with her guests. She is planning her annual flower garden while breakfasting with her husband. She is constantly thinking on how to improve the soil around the peonies. Like so many of us, Mrs. Dolly Bantry is a gardener at heart, and has difficulty concentrating on anything else.
Gardeners are so often like Mrs. Bantry. Even on the darkest and coldest of winter days, we are plotting and planning, making lists and drawing sketches, continually thinking about how to make our gardens more beautiful. We often consider our five senses – the feel of the soil through our finger tips, the fragrance of the flowers we’ve cultivated, the way the architecture of the trees and shrubs plays off the height of each flower bed, the explosion of taste from our lovingly tended fruits and vegetables, and the songs of the birds finding refuge in our yards. To sit out on the patio at the end of a late spring day and enjoy the sights of a yard in bloom and the twitter of the birds in the trees is, truly, one of life’s greatest pleasures.
Attracting birds to my yard is, in fact, a hobby that has become just as enjoyable to me as gardening. With a bit of good information and some patience, you can learn the best ways to provide a welcoming habitat for birds. When purchasing a bird feeder, there are several important questions to consider. Does the feeder hold enough seed to last more than a few days? Is the feeder easy to fill and maintain? Will the feeder last for many years out in the elements? A quality bird feeder is one that doesn’t need to be refilled more than once or twice a week, can easily be filled without having to unscrew a lid or spill the bird seed, and will last and look great in your yard for a lifetime.
After making a purchase of a good-looking and well functioning bird feeder, the second consideration is placement. The best spot for a birdfeeder is, of course, where you can see it! Being able to watch the birds pluck out a peanut or interact with one another is one of the countless joys of feeding the birds. Sitting down to breakfast or reading the paper can be enriched significantly when the birdfeeder is in sight. If a tree branch is unavailable, there are attractive options for hanging your new feeder on a specially designed pole system, making any spot a good spot for a birdfeeder.
Now, to fill the birdfeeder! Select the freshest, best quality seed you can find, free of fillers (like oats, red millet, milo, and excessive amounts of corn) and harmful ingredients (like sugar, salt, colour, fragrance, and preservatives). Black oil or striped sunflower seeds are excellent seeds that mimic the food that birds forage for in nature and will be readily accepted by the birds frequenting your feeder. My personal preference is to use sunflower seeds without the shell, blended with a few shelled peanuts and tree nuts. Offering bird food without shells prevents a mess from piling up underneath the feeder, which can attract rodents and even sprout. There are enough weeds to deal with as a gardener; no one wants to be afflicted with an errant patch of sprouted bird seed! Once your birdfeeder is full of seed, just sit back and watch the show. Most birds find food by sight, and it often takes them a few days or more to spot a new source. Soon, a brave little bird will swoop down to check out what’s being offered, usually a darling Black-capped Chickadee, and advertise to the rest of the birds that they’ve found the good stuff.
Take stock of your yard and work to make it more habitable for birds. This is an especially important step for yards in newer developments. Often, bird habitats have been completely decimated in order to make room for new houses. In order to entice the birds back to the area, one must provide what birds need to thrive – food, shelter, and water. Trees make excellent homes for birds, but they will also nest in nest boxes, if they are available. Many birds like to have a spot to eat away from the bird feeder. For example, Black-capped Chickadees and Nuthatches will snag a seed and then look for a nearby perch to feast on their find. In newer yards where there are no large branches yet, birdwatchers can attach faux branches to a bird feeding station or “plant” some larger cut branches or a tree trunk in the soil. If possible, leave a brush pile for birds to hide inside – from both weather and predators. Allow some plants with seeds to remain standing during the winter months. Birds likely eat only 20% of their calories from the food offered at bird feeders. The more natural food sources that are found in your yard, the more likely they will be to set up shop. This is an important reason to ensure that you are planting some native species in your yard. By establishing native trees, shrubs, and flowers, you are guaranteeing that birds and other pollinators will have seeds, fruits, and nectar to sustain them throughout the seasons. Providing a water source is another way to entice birds. As elaborate as a pond or waterfall, or as simple as a bird bath, birds use water to take a drink or preen their feathers to keep them in tip-top shape. A heated bird bath is often the chosen gathering space for birds on warmer winter days. As an added bonus, if a gardener is consistently providing food, water, shelter, and using earth-friendly gardening practices, as outlined by the Canadian Wildlife Federation, your yard can be certified as a “Wildlife-friendly Habitat”. For more information, check out their website at https://cwf-fcf.org/en/explore/gardening-for-wildlife/action/get-certified/ .
Once birds begin to flock to your yard, you can up your bird feeding game. Many bird feeding enthusiasts learn they can attract more birds, and gain more enjoyment, by offering different types of foods. Suet is a good way to have woodpeckers such as the Downy, Hairy, and Pileated Woodpeckers, as well as the Northern Flicker hanging around. A hummingbird feeder is a natural choice for gardeners. Attracting the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird is a thrill few of us can pass up. Place your feeder, full of 1 part table sugar to 4 parts distilled or boiled water, in a visible location, near brightly coloured flowers such as salvia, delphinium, bee balm, honeysuckle, or penstemon. A finch feeder full of Nyger seed is another consideration. American Goldfinch, House Finch, and Purple Finch will happily munch away on these tiny seeds.
In our urban environment, birds are often the only wildlife we observe on a regular basis. They are wonderful creatures that are interesting, entertaining, and completely engaging. Being able to enhance our gardens, but also our lives, by inviting them to our yards can bring immeasurable joy and connectedness to nature. Getting started is simple, and the rewards are endless. And as I sit on the patio on a late spring evening, soaking in the garden’s sights and sounds, I like to imagine that I’m as dedicated a gardener as Mrs. Bantry, and that she, in turn, is as enthusiastic about birdwatching as I am.
The Joy of Winter Bird Feeding
By Erin Dykstra
(Published in the Winter 2020 Westmount Window)
“What kinds of birds will I see eating at my birdfeeder during winter?” This is one of the questions we get asked most often in our store. While it’s true that many migrating birds have already taken off for warmer weather, there are several interesting species that stick around our neighbourhoods and enjoy frequenting feeders. Black-capped Chickadees are the first species that come to mind. This beloved little bird, with it’s cheerful song and perfect yellow undercarriage, can often be heard chirping away on the coldest of winter days. They thrive on seeds from both deciduous and coniferous trees, but are not shy about delving into some black-oil sunflower seeds offered at a backyard birdfeeder. Various woodpeckers hang around all year as well. From the small Downy Woodpecker to it’s larger cousin, the Hairy Woodpecker, to the sizable Pileated Woodpecker, all are often seen in backyards during winter. They dine most readily on suet, loving the high fat and high protein contained within. Watching out your window on a winter day, you might also spot House Sparrows, Redpolls, Juncos, Red or White-breasted Nuthatches and Blue Jays as they select seeds from your feeder or clean up the ground around it. Offering fresh, quality bird food for the birds in your yard can help them during our cold, dark winters. Birds forage for food during daylight hours and with light in short supply this season, birds can spend less energy searching for food and more time fueling up, preparing to survive the long cold night. Fresh water can also attract more birds to your yard. Even during winter, backyard birds will visit a heated birdbath to take a drink or preen their feathers to keep them in tip-top insulating shape. What could be more cheerful on a frozen January morning, than watching the birds as they dine, splash, and play in your backyard?