Connected To The Land 04-2018-Fall-718-PM96 - Page 37

ATTRACTING WINTER BIRDS WINTER BRINGS UNEXPECTED EXCITEMENT Story and photos by Myrna Pearman. Top: Bohemian Waxwing. T hose of us who live in northern climates know all about winter. Even with modern conveniences and technology, we must contend with cold temperatures, howling winds, deep snow, freezing rain and long hours of darkness. Imagine what hardships our wild neighbours must endure during these conditions, and how resilient and resourceful they must be to survive. Bird species that are unable to tolerate northern winters must migrate south to warmer climates. Interestingly, it isn’t the cold alone that dictates who can stay vs. who must migrate; rather, it is food availability. Species that lose their main food sources during late summer or early fall must head to regions where these food sources remain available. Migrant species include insect eaters (e.g., warblers, vireos, thrushes), water birds (e.g., herons, cranes, shorebirds and most waterfowl), ground feeders (e.g., sparrows) and nectar feeders (e.g., hummingbirds). The birds that stay year-round in an area are classified as resident species. In the north, these residents either catch live prey (e.g., owls) or are able to shift their diet to a paltry Downy Male Chilly. Photo by Myrna Pearman. Fall 2018 fare of buds, berries, seeds, frozen insects and carrion (e.g., chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, magpies, grouse). In recent years, the open water found around dams and sewage treatment plants has resulted in more species (e.g., ducks and geese) being able to find food and thus able to remain for the entire winter. Not surprisingly, northern residents have evolved very sophisticated physical, physiological and behavioural survival strategies. Physical adaptations include feathers (which provide insulation), body fat (used for fuel storage) and feet (which are dry and kept at a lower temperature than the body core). Physiological adaptions include shivering (to generate heat), regulated hypothermia (to save energy) and—in some species—torpor (a state of extreme dormancy). While birds need to have sufficient physical and physiological stamina, they must also adjust their behaviours to survive. One of the most obvious and basic behaviours is to consume as many calories as possible during the day, especially after waking and before retiring. Thus, life for winter birds is a ceaseless quest for food. Another common survival behaviour is to store /cache food for later dining: in the fall and early winter, many species will tuck food morsels under leaves, into bark crevices and in other nooks and crannies. Cache locations may not always be remembered, but the hidden bits will inevitably be found by some other bird, hence serving as important community food sources during lean, cold times. Other interesting behavioural strategies include seeking sheltered areas in which to feed or sleep, huddling or roosting together for shared warmth, becoming motionless and drawing feet up into feathers for warmth during extremely cold weather, and maximizing solar benefits by sitting perpendicular to the sun’s rays. HOW CAN WE HELP OUR FEATHERED FRIENDS? Setting out backyard bird feeding stations is one way that we can help birds in winter. However, while it is true that well-stocked bird feeders may increase survival rates during periods of extreme weather, research has shown that supplemental feeding programs are of no real benefit to overall bird populations. Backyard bird feeding is more about human enjoyment than it is about bird conservation. Which isn’t to say that feeding birds isn’t a great hobby! I, like millions of other people around the world, take delight in observing and photographing the birds that come to my feeders, especially during the winter. Birds liven up a cold winter day, and watching feeder birds is a great way to spark in children a love of nature. Feeder watching can teach us much about local birds and their behavior, and data collected through citizen science programs such as Project FeederWatch have enabled scientific analyses of bird population trends, range expansions, etc. The best way for us to attract and care for birds in winter is to provide habitat so the birds can thrive on their own. Habitat is defined as space within which creatures can find food, shelter 37