If you’re looking for a new hobby to try this summer, this is the perfect opportunity to explore backyard bird watching. Not only is this an activity you can enjoy from the comfort of your own home, but it’s suitable for people of all ages and abilities. Not to mention, feeding the birds gives a much-needed boost to our natural environment.
“By feeding the birds, you’re giving them the opportunity to not expend all their energy looking for food when it’s really cold or hot out,” says Liz Evans, owner of Wild Birds Unlimited – a retail store selling birdseed and birdfeeders in Newmarket. “Plus, you get to interact with and enjoy nature in your backyard.”
Kristyn Ferguson, Director of Conservation with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, has enjoyed bird watching since childhood. “I was always interested in birds from a young age because my mom kept feeders,” she says. “Living in the suburbs of Toronto, we would get all sorts of interesting birds, like cardinals and gold finches, and can always remember my mom exclaiming over the dark-eyed juncos because they were her favourite.”
While you don’t need any formal knowledge or background in birds in order to become a backyard birdwatcher, there are a number of simple guidelines you can follow to make the activity as pleasant and stress-free as possible.
First, you’ll want to secure your birdfeeder and food. “You will find different types of birds at different feeders,” explains Ferguson. For example, your general feeders tend to attract the birds most commonly spotted in the York Region area, such as blue jays, cardinals, chickadees and nuthatches.
These birds enjoy high protein food, such as black oil sunflower seed, explains Evans. “If you don’t have the ability to put a pole in the ground with a 10-foot clearance around it, your best bet is to buy a squirrel-proof feeder,” she says. “You can get some pretty bird feeders that are just not functional. Our bird feeders are designed with the hobbyist and the bird in mind.”
Hummingbirds, on the other hand, enjoy a special type of feeder, which is red with plastic yellow flowers in the feeding area, and it can be filled with a simple sugar solution. “Then there are the long, skinny finch feeders with nyjer seed that are particularly attractive to gold finches and anything in the finch family,” says Ferguson. “And when I put a suet feeder in the backyard (a mix of fat and seed), it attracts mostly woodpeckers.”
When it comes to identifying the birds at the feeder, start with what you know, advises Ferguson. For example, most people will recognize a blue jay thanks to its distinct colour, or a cardinal with its Mohawk and bright red feathers.
When you get to the sparrow and finch families of birds, which birders commonly refer to as “LBJs” or “little brown jobs”, things get a little more complicated. “Start looking for field marks – a stripe by the eye, a spot on the breast, a white flash on the wing,” advises Ferguson. Then correlate what you’re seeing with what you find in a bird book.
Ferguson suggests investing in a great field guide – you can even get one specific to birding in a backyard or park. Cornell University also offers an incredible resource for bird watchers at www.birds.cornell.edu/, and there are plenty of helpful apps you can download on your smartphone.
It’s not just what you see that matters though; pay close attention to the sounds you hear. “I got into birding more by ear than by sight when I started,” Ferguson says. “When I would hear chick-a-dee-dee-dee, that was the chickadee saying its own name. Lots of birds have calls that sound like their own name.” Try searching bird songs on YouTube to learn how to recognize different species by sound.
To keep the birds coming back, Evans recommends cleaning and sterilizing your bird feeder seasonally, at a minimum. “There are so many empty bird feeders hanging in peoples backyards because they put the wrong feed in and they don’t like the mess, or squirrels are constantly at them because they have full access,” says Evans. But with the right knowledge and equipment, you can enjoy backyard birding all year round.
Wild Birds Unlimited, Newmarket
By Charlotte Ottaway