Life

FORTE: Look who stopped by for breakfast

Theresa Forte

By Theresa Forte, special to Postmedia News

Blue jays collect and stash whole peanuts before stopping to eat them. (Theresa M. Forte/Special to Postmedia Network)

Blue jays collect and stash whole peanuts before stopping to eat them. (Theresa M. Forte/Special to Postmedia Network)

While my weekend coffee brews, I step outside to fill the bird feeders on our deck. The feeders are visible from the kitchen table and I enjoy watching the activity as birds drop by for a winter snack.

Sparrows, finches, blue jays and cardinals regularly stop by for breakfast, and once in a while I’ll spot a woodpecker on the suet feeder or a pair of juncos foraging under the bench. Occasionally, a hawk will make his presence known and the silence in the garden is palpable.

Breakfasting with the birds wasn’t always an option in our suburban backyard — it took several years to establish a habitat that made them feel comfortable enough to call our back yard home. It takes more than a bird feeder to attract birds to your garden. Wooded, rural lots attract the most birds; soften city plots with trees and shrubs to create a habitat for the birds — the feeder is just a bonus.

According to Doug Tallamy, author and professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at University of Delaware, seed producing native herbaceous and woody plants offer the most reliable food source for birds. Dried seed heads of rudbeckia, evening primrose, coreopsis, New York ironweed, Joe Pye weed, sunflowers and grasses provide a satisfying meal for birds.

Oak trees offer energy packed acorns that feed jays, woodpeckers, turkeys, nuthatch and even some duck species. Sweet gum, sycamore and buttonbush provide seed for finches. Grosbeaks and crossbills will forage on pine, spruce and fir; robins will feast on juniper berries in the middle of winter.

Many garden-worthy flowering shrubs also produce a crop of fat laden berries for the birds. Viburnum, dogwood, spicebush and Virginia creeper berries build up fat reserves for winter, or help to fuel long migrations. Later in the season, Tallamy says, birds need more carbohydrates, and will forage on native hollies and cranberry bushes.

Insect-eating birds will never visit a feeder. Tallamy recommends leaving a layer of leaf mulch in the garden. Robins, bluebird and hermit thrush will forage in the litter for insects hiding in the layers of foliage.

Our 30-year old garden now includes a wide variety of trees, shrubs, perennials and grasses that create a welcome habitat for birds. A simple birdbath is also very popular with my winged visitors, as soon as I fill the bird bath, birds stop by for a splash and drink of fresh water.

Local robins favour dogwood berries — the fruit is devoured as soon as it matures.

I know the coneflowers have set seed when the goldfinches linger in the garden. Despite the availability of seeds, berries and a good supply of bugs hidden in the mulch, I still enjoy filling up the feeders to supplement the diet of my avian friends.

When it comes to food, birds can be just as particular as their human counterparts. So where do you start? The universal favourite seed is the small black-oil sunflower seed. It has a high oil content (nutritious) and a thin seed coat that is easy to crack open (important for smaller birds). Blue jays and cardinals like the larger striped sunflower seed, but many of the smaller birds have trouble cracking it open; the discarded hulls will leave a mess on the ground below the feeder.

I’ve tried several packaged bird seed mixes that promise to attract songbirds with mixed success. The cracked corn and millet in some inexpensive mixes gets scattered across the lawn as the birds search for their favourite seeds; I’m willing to spend a little more for a premium mix that has little or no wastage. Right now I’m serving a Songbird Mix from Minor Brothers Country Living (www.minorbros.com) that includes black-oil sunflower, safflower, shelled peanuts, striped sunflower, cranberries and mineral oil. It is supposed to attract woodpeckers, juncos, cardinals, blue jays, chickadees and nuthatches, and I’ve seen most of these birds at our feeder along with sparrows and finches.

As you attract more birds, other creatures will also stop by for a free meal. I’ve seen bunnies, mice and rats (yuk) under the feeders; and squirrels will try to help themselves to seed. I’ve invested in several squirrel-proof wire feeders, that are very effective. I offer whole peanuts to the blue jays on Sunday mornings, and I don’t mind the squirrels helping themselves to the peanuts. Suet feeders attract woodpeckers and tiny niger seed is a magnet for goldfinches and house finches, but it is quite expensive. My finches make do with home-grown coneflower seed, I haven’t had any complaints so far.

There are a few strategies to keep in mind when placing your backyard feeders. Position the feeder within easy view of your favourite window in a spot that will be secure for the birds. My resident birds work their way from a thicket of shrubbery across the lawn to the crabapple tree, where they perch and collect their courage, before heading to the feeders above the deck. It’s a process.

Time to get back to my coffee, the birds will be here any minute.

— Theresa Forte is a local garden writer, photographer and speaker. You can reach her by calling 905-351-7540 or by email at theresa_forte@sympatico.ca.