Embracing winter through birding

RCGS Fellow Myrna Pearman offers her tips for a successful winter birding season
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A Canadian winter — fraught as it is with cold temperatures, blizzards, sometimes-hazardous roads and deep snow — is the perfect season to celebrate birds. As long as one is safe, well-prepared and dressed appropriately, the rewards for birding in winter are many: no mosquitos, no crowds, the appearance of winter-only bird species, the opportunity to observe unique bird behaviours and, for the beginner, fewer species to puzzle over.

Bringing the birds to you

In the long-term, the best way to attract birds — and to contribute to overall biodiversity — is to bring birds and other wild creatures into your yards and gardens by creating habitat (providing space where animals can find food, water and shelter). Creating habitat through “naturescaping” is readily achievable, even in urban landscapes, and most Canadian provinces have programs and/or resources related to creating and enhancing backyard biodiversity.

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In the shorter-term, winter birds can be enticed to visit backyards by setting out bird feeding stations. Unless prohibited by local/condo ordinances, even city centre backyards, including urban balconies, can attract avian neighbours if the proper food is offered. Not only do bird feeding stations attract resident species such as chickadees, jays and woodpeckers, but they may also entice the species, such as redpolls, that migrate south during the winter from their Arctic nesting grounds. Having birds come into feeding stations provides an excellent opportunity to study and appreciate bird behaviour and is an excellent way to introduce children to the wonders of nature.

I recommend three bird feeding staples: sunflower seeds, peanuts and suet. Both sunflowers and peanuts can be offered shelled or unshelled. Shelled seeds are more expensive than unshelled, but are easier for the birds to eat (no shell to crack open) and less messy (no buildup of husked shells). Commercial suet cakes are the easiest way to dispense suet, although it can also be offered raw or rendered (melted) and mixed with other ingredients.   

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Feeding stations may also be visited some years by “winter wanderers” — species such as grosbeaks and crossbills that move over vast tracts of our boreal forests in search of abundant cone crops and — when they are in the neighbourhood —will avail themselves of sunflower seeds. During the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, especially during stormy weather, feeding stations will also attract migrants such as juncos and other species of native sparrows. Finally, feeding stations, with all their busyness and activity, will inevitably attract birds of prey, such as Northern Shrikes, and Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawks.

Out in the field

Winter is a good time to explore the great outdoors, especially local neighbourhoods, parks and  natural areas. What better “excuse” to get out and explore than to go out looking for birds; birding provides both purpose and interest to any outdoor ramble.

Many keen birdwatchers and photographers drive rural backroads during the winter, looking for the highly visible species such as eagles, owls and Snow Buntings. They will also check areas of open water such as sewerage outlets, dams and rivers that support overwintering populations of ducks and geese.

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For the most enthusiastic and dedicated birders, winter birding is done on foot (or snowshoes or skis). As long as one is dressed appropriately, walking in any wooded area will likely yield a surprising diversity of winter birds. Birding on foot has the distinct advantage over driving (besides being healthier) because the birds can be heard, and species not likely seen from a vehicle can be spotted. Walking is the best way to find flocks of winter finches, smaller and more elusive species, less common woodpeckers and the smaller owls.

With so many outstanding birding apps now available, such as eBird and iNaturalist, it is easy to find out which local species have been recently sighted, and these apps make it easy for even novice birders to become citizen scientists by contributing their sightings to important global bird tracking research.

Social media is another excellent way to keep updated on winter sightings. There are dozens of Facebook pages and other platforms dedicated to birds, from bird feeding groups to those that specialize in bird photography. While the locations of rare owls and other sensitive species are not usually disclosed, social media is a great way to find out where local winter species are being seen.

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Additional information about winter birding can be obtained from the many volunteer nature and birding organizations that operate across the country. A good place to start is with Nature Canada’s Nature Network.

Provincial organizations have excellent resources (including provincial checklists) while many regional nature and birding clubs have their own websites and social media feeds. Most clubs also offer year-round field trips, as well, which provide beginning birders with excellent opportunities to avail themselves of the knowledge of local naturalists and learn more about local areas. Happily, many friendships are formed through a shared love of birds. 

So, while we might tire of the snow, the cold and the dark — or whatever else a Canadian winter can throw our way — we thankfully have the option to share it with the birds!


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