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Winter Backyard Birds

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by Carley Goodreau

A sure sign that winter is coming are flocks of birds migrating south to escape the cold. Each year we say goodbye to our feathery friends seeking greener pastures to ride out the chillier months. But not all birds migrate. In fact, many species choose to stay right here in Alberta throughout the winter.

Should I stay or should I go?

What a bird eats plays a large part in whether or not it will migrate. Birds that survive mainly on flying insects and nectar tend to migrate south to find more abundant sources of these foods.1 Seed eaters and birds that can forage for insects hibernating in bark are the most likely to stick around for the winter.2 Although they look small and delicate, feathers provide excellent insulation, and birds are very efficient with their energy usage.

The list of typical species has expanded over the years due to human involvement – the presence of feeders or the introduction of non-native fruit bearing plants providing enough food for birds to stay in northern regions throughout the winter.3

Some birds you can find in Alberta during the winter are various species of chickadees, magpies, waxwings, nuthatches, finches and woodpeckers.4 Owls overwinter in Alberta as well, but backyard sightings are less common.

The black-billed magpie, a common year-round backyard visitor.

Lending a (mittened) hand

There are a few things you can do to help ensure the health and safety of your neighborhood birds throughout the upcoming cold months.

1. Clean your feeders

Bird feeders give winter birds an easy food source and an opportunity for you to enjoy their presence in your yard, but it’s important to keep your feeders clean. Moldy seed and droppings left in and around feeders can cause illness and spread diseases like salmonella to the birds using them.5 Removing any wet food or seeds, using a diluted disinfectant solution to clean and rinsing thoroughly every two weeks will keep your feeder in tip top shape for healthy birds.6

2. Avoid heated bird baths

While a nice, warm bath might seem like a treat for chilly birds, heated bird baths pose a significant risk in cold weather. Open water signifies to birds that it’s warm enough to bathe in, but once they’ve left the water, it can quickly freeze on their legs and feathers affecting their ability to fly.7 Alberta winter birds are well adapted to the weather and eat snow for hydration if needed, so they don’t require an additional source.8 If you do choose to keep using a heated bird bath, you can reduce the hazard by adding mesh over the water so that birds can dip their beaks in to drink, but not get wet.9

3. Provide bird friendly food

A downy woodpecker feeding from a suet bird feeder.

Birds need high fat content food to maintain their energy. Black sunflower seeds and suet are excellent winter food choices for birds.10 Avoid offering pet food – it attracts cats – and bread and dehydrated coconut can swell inside bird stomachs.11

As always, our nature neighbours are best viewed from a distance, and any interactions, like feeders, should be undertaken with care. You can call our hotline (403-946-2361) if you notice a bird hurt or unwell this winter.

2 thoughts on “Winter Backyard Birds”

  1. Judith N. Brooke

    I feed peanuts to the larger birds and mixed seed for the smaller, plus suet in the winter. During the very cold winter days, all the birds rarely come to the feeders. Where do they go? On the branches of the evergreens to stay warm?

    1. You’d be right, most birds avoid the cold by huddling in sheltered spaces. Chickadees, for example, will often hide under the snowpack in extreme cold.

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