How to bring all the birds to your yard

Making your urban backyard a safe and welcoming space for birds to make a stop on their way south, isn’t as complicated as some people might think, experts say.

“We can improve our backyards by having little attractants, like a water station,” Matt Wallace, a director at Nature Calgary, told CBC News in an interview.

“We can hold off on our fall clean up, keeping debris on our lawns, keeping things a little bit longer to hold moisture, in which promotes more insects.”

And those insects fill the bellies of birds most of the year, except when winter sets in.

Matt Wallace is a director at Nature Calgary, and an organizer of the organization’s annual City Nature Challenge. (Supplied by Matt Wallace)

So that’s where we can play a part, the co-owner of a bird store told The Homestretch.

“They look to bird feeders,” said Kris Brown at The Wild Bird Store.

And with a little planning, it’s possible to have a nice mix of feathered friends using your backyard as a stopover.

Start with a high-capacity feeder, meaning it holds a lot of food, just for the sparrows.

“They are the birds you are going to see the most of,” Brown explained.

“They will help attract other species into your yard. Once that happens, you can start putting up feeders that are more specific to those songbirds and leave the sparrows in their own feeding area.”

Chickadees, nuthatches, finches and woodpeckers prefer peanut and suet feeders, Brown added.

This tube bird feeder is effective but it’s not high capacity, so you will have to fill it often, and multiple birds cannot use it at the same time. (Supplied by Kris Brown)

Birds mostly care about the food, not the feeder, but it doesn’t hurt to know what’s out there.

There are long-tube style feeders, but they aren’t high capacity so you have to fill them often, and few birds can feed at the same time.

Then there are hoppers, with plexiglass sides that funnel feed to a tray at the bottom.

But if you want to invite larger birds like blue jays into your yard, you’ll need more than a milkshake, despite what a certain early-2000s song says.

“You want to give the bigger birds a fly-through feeder. It’s really just an open tray. It’s like a hopper feeder but without the plexiglass sides on it. They can fly in one side and out the other, grabbing food as they do. Keep that feeder away from your sparrow feeder and your other feeders. Small birds don’t like to eat with big birds,” Brown said.

Kris Brown is a co-owner of The Wild Bird Store in Calgary. (Supplied by Kris Brown)

But fly-through feeders will also attract magpies, crows and squirrels.

Brown says there are ways to discourage squirrels, like putting a pole in the middle of your yard, at least five metres from a branch or overhang, or using a squirrel-proof feeder that uses springs and the squirrel’s weight to keep the food chute shut.

Brown recommends medium chip bird food, which is the meat of the black oil sunflower, because it doesn’t have filler and won’t leave a big mess under the feeder.

This is a fly-through bird feeder, for larger birds. (Supplied by Kris Brown)

Meanwhile, Wallace says there are ways to keep your backyard a safe space for birds.

“Light pollution is a significant issue for migratory birds. In the evening there is no need to have exterior lights on. It may attract them to our yard. It could influence their behaviour in a negative way,” he said.

“We can mark our windows, using products like stickers. One of the most popular is called Feather Friendly. Birds don’t perceive glass that well and can see vegetation in the window’s reflection. You can close your blinds, or use highlighters, or hang some ornaments.”

And if you find birdwatching is your thing, Nature Calgary has lots of ways to get better at it. They have field trips, social media, and membership options to help you soar above the crowd.

“People love to watch birds but often they don’t have the resources to know what they are looking at,” Wallace said, adding every April the group has a City Nature Challenge, which is a “citizen science event for people of all ages and abilities to help document urban biodiversity.”

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