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Helping birds survive the winter

Snow bunting © concours photo (Normand Boucher)
Helping birds survive the winter

You have worked all summer to create your bird garden, and you have surely had the chance to see various birds flying around your home. But as the cold weather approaches, how can you help your feathered friends make it through the winter?

A helping hand

While the plants in your garden may offer shelter and a source of food for birds, they will probably not be sufficient to feed them throughout the winter. If you live in the countryside, you can put suet cages and feeders full of high-calorie seed mixes in your garden to help them gain the strength and weight they need to brave extreme temperatures. You will find ready-made seed mixes and vegetable-based fat cakes in most pet stores. Or better yet, you can make them yourself using the many recipes available on specialized websites. However, this approach is not recommended in cities such as Greater Montreal, because you risk attracting animals that will scare the birds off or non-native species. Avoid seed mixes as they attract exotic species such as sparrows, starlings and pigeons. Instead, choose unsalted black sunflower seeds.

A tip that works wherever you live

Take a log with a minimum diameter of 10 cm and drill a few holes—approximately 3–4 cm in diameter—on one side. Next, drill a small hole at either end of the log to screw in metal rings, then connect them by attaching a string or metal chain. Fill the holes with suet, then hang the log horizontally, with the holes facing downwards.

Why facing downwards?

Simply because starlings will have difficulty hanging onto the log to get the suet out. Meanwhile, it will be child’s play to native species such as woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and treecreepers. Check your feeders often to make sure your feathered visitors always have something to eat and clean them regularly to prevent bacteria from taking hold.

A source of liquid water

One thing birds need most in wintertime is water. Like all animals, they need to drink water, which can be in short supply during periods of extreme cold. They may have to resort to eating snow to hydrate themselves, but melting it wastes a lot of their energy.
Making sure that liquid water is accessible in winter is therefore essential. But how?
There are several solutions, of varying cost, available:

  • Buy a heated birdbath ($$$): Many heated birdbath systems can be found on specialized websites such as lenaturaliste.ca. These will keep the water temperature above the freezing point.
  • Invest in an electric de-icer or build a heating system yourself ($$): Place a 60-watt lightbulb, plugged into a grounded outdoor receptacle, in a flowerpot wrapped in insulation, then place the saucer that came with the flowerpot on top and fill it with water. The heat emitted by the lightbulb will prevent the water from freezing.
  • Change the water in your birdbath regularly ($): Pour hot water (not boiling!) into the birdbath and bring it indoors overnight to prevent it from freezing.

With any of these methods, you will help birds get through the winter more easily and be in better shape in the spring!
This article was written in cooperation with Stéphan Deschênes, scientific interpreter at the Biodôme.

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