"It has been said by those who feed birds in winter that woodpeckers are
glum and ill-natured; that Blue Jays are gluttonous and saucy; that nuthatches
are testy and suspicious; and that evening Grosbeaks are quarrelsome and
greedy. But the chickadee is a little bundle of good nature and friendliness,
confiding and comforting."
-- Robie Tufts, The Birds of Nova Scotia
WINTER MAY BE the best time to start nature watching. There are less birds
but enough to challenge the beginner without the camouflage of summer and
Only a dozen or so species frequent settled areas of Nova Scotia in winter,
and most are easily recognizable and easy to watch. By setting out bird feeders
you can attract birds not normally seen and draw old favourites closer. The
Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History on Summer Street in Halifax is a good
source of information on this fascinating activity.
Birds that normally winter in Nova Scotia are well adapted to conditions
here. They eat weed seeds, berries, insect larvae and eggs, but in late fall
and winter a feeding station can supplement this natural diet. Feeders are
most important to the birds' survival in times of extreme cold or heavy snow
when wild food is hidden or frozen. These are just the days when you might
be tempted to skip the morning trip to fill the feeder. Don't give in! This
is when the birds need you most. Sometimes birds that migrate south will
stay here very late in the season because a feeding station put out too early
has been providing an easy food supply. Wait for cold weather, or you may
find yourself the sole winter provider for a Song Sparrow. White-throated
sparrow, or Baltimore Oriole.
A feeding station can be put almost anywhere. As long as it is stocked, birds
of some sort will eventually find it. An ideal site offers shelter from weather,
but trees or bushes too nearby may give concealment to lurking cats. Birds
seem to prefer an open space around the feeder itself. For comfortable bird
watching, put your feeder within view of a handy window.
Designs for bid feeders are abundant and imaginative, but the simplest ones
are often the most successful.
Birds that scratch for seed, like sparrows, will feed from seed scattered
on a log or board on the snow. A hanging suet feeder will attract agile birds
like chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers, and may discourage Starlings.
Sunflower seeds lure Blue Jays, Evening Grosbeaks, and Purple Finches. Remember
that birds have beaks and habits that adapt them to particular foods. Seed
eaters with large beaks eat mixtures of sunflower seeds, corn, cracked grains,
rolled oats, peanuts, or the small seeds in commercial packages. Birds that
feed on insects need an animal product like suet (beef fat), rendered or
just hung in a lump from trees or clothesline. House Sparrows, Starlings,
Cowbirds and Pigeons will be the main visitors to a feeder stocked with table
scraps. They are all-purpose eaters adapted to life around people.
Chances are that no matter what food you offer, those "urban birds" will
be the first visitors. Don't discourage them at first, because their presence
will attract other birds. Put out a large assortment of small feeders to
lessen competition and attract the widest variety of birds.
great favourite is the plump strawberry-red Purple
Finch (not shown), with a stout bill able to attract sunflower
seeds. Also fond of sunflower seeds is the chunky Evening
Grosbeak. Males are yellow with white wing patches, black tail
and crown; females are gray with yellow patches. Grosbeaks -- hardly known
here a dozen years ago -- now breed in Nova Scotia and are a welcome sight
at feeders in
late fall, though you may tire of them by spring.
The little slate-coloured Junco is a
sparrow with dark gray upper side and white belly. Its white tail feathers
flicker in flight. Flocks of Juncos may descend on feeding stations, scratching
seed from the ground.
The White-throated Sparrow is best
known as a summer resident, but
occasional stragglers turn up at feeders. It's a large sparrow with black-and-white
striped crown and a white throat.
Blue Jays are noisy birds, easily known by their bright blue colour and crested
head. A long strong beak enables them to eat both seeds and insects. Watch
for a Blue Jay to hold a sunflower seed against a branch with its toes, then
hammer it open with its beak.
Suet for birds can be rendered, mixed with oats and seeds, and stored uncovered
in the fridge. Suet-seed mixture stuffed into a half coconut shell or holes
drilled in a log suits woodpeckers and nuthatches. Peanut butter and seed
mixture is good too, but plain peanut butter could seal a beak shut. Avoid
metal or wire mesh containers, because birds' tongues may freeze to them
in cold weather.
Black-capped Chickadee is a small plump gray bird with a long
tail and black cap and bib. A seed-suet mix will attract chickadees, and
they are often easily tamed at feeders. Chickadees are acrobatic birds, able
to cling to swinging feeders and hang upside down to eat. They are an endless
source of amusement.
and Hairy Woodpeckers look much alike
-- black with white speckles, and a red spot on the back of the males' head.
Their feeding activity on insects, eggs and larvae in tree bark is useful
in controlling insects that damage trees. Woodpeckers relish sunflower seeds,
swallowing them whole, but are most attracted by suet. The Hair Woodpecker
is larger than the Downy.
are small birds with large heads and bills, and short tails. Colour is blue-gray
above, buff to rust below, with a dark eye-stripe on the Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Call is a nasal "yank-yank". Nuthatches are nicknamed "upside-down-birds"
for their habit of running headfirst down trees searching for insects. Feed
them suet, especially in a hanging log feeder.
A few bird species have solved the human problem by adapting to life with
Generally, they have broad food preferences, and little discretion at food
time. You might think of them as airborne weeds, but they are part of our
short tails and a triangular look in flight. In winter, flecks of white dot
their bluish-black plumage. They were introduced to New York from Europe
in 1890, and the first Nova Scotia report is from Dartmouth in 1915.
House or English Sparrows
are another European import, usually the first to find and the last to leave
were considered "infrequent" in 1950; now they are starting to over winter
here in large numbers. They are robin-size, males with a brown head and breast,
black otherwise; females are a dull gray. They scavenge with other city birds.
Just a reminder that you feed the sparrows, and the sparrows feed the Sharp-shinned
Hawk. This hawk is about 30 cm high, blue to gray above and white beneath.
*Debra Burleson is Director, Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History. This
article appeared originally as "winter Birds and Feeders", a part of the
Nova Scotia Museum INFO series. Drawings courtesy of the National Museum
of Natural Sciences and the Newfoundland Parks Division.
Colour Illustrations by Roger Tory Peterson and John A. Crosby
Line drawings by John H. Dick
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