Decorate Your Tree Yet? — For the Birds!
If you come over to our house this winter, chances are that the toddler will take you to the back door and show you the Dark-eyed Juncos dotting the snow, or maybe ‘Daddy Cardinal’.
It wasn’t always this way. It started during the depths of winter, just last year.
Our first foray into feeding the locals started after an intense snowfall in January. I noticed bird seed at Fiesta Farms — of surprisingly good quality — and bought a bag on impulse. Toddler and I spread it outside on the ground on a piece of wood. Within a few hours, the word got out. The backyard was full of lovely ombré grey birds we had never seen there before.
Turns out my impulse in buying that first bag of seed was correct: Winter snowfalls are tricky for birds because the snow covers their food sources. If you want almost-instant gratification bird-wise, put seed out after a snowfall. It really helps them out.
The cardinal we’d seen flashes of came back around and stayed for a while. The next week we spotted some ‘little brown jobs’ that weren’t sparrows — we noticed that some of them had brilliant red heads.
Here’s the thing: many birds stick around during the winter. We are lucky our city is dotted with ravines and parks and backyards full of vines and berries and dried seed heads. Providing them with extra sources of food during the winter makes a real contribution to local birds’ ability to survive the harsher cold months. Putting out fatty foods like suet or lard is also important: birds need to burn extra calories in winter just to stay warm.
So while you’re getting ready for the holidays and decorating your home, why not decorate a tree for the birds?
To help you get started, High Park Nature Centre has a fantastic workshop next Saturday — with 10 spots left.
It’s a wonderfully kid-oriented program: there are multiple stations set up to help your child string an edible garland of apples, popcorn and cranberries (for cardinals and woodpeckers) or smear a pinecone or small branch with lard (yum!) and cover it with the delicious black-oil sunflower seeds that eastern birds love to eat. Free coffee, cider and cookies sweeten the deal.
Afterwards a High Park Nature Centre staff member reads a magical and Christmas-themed story by Eve Bunting which just happens to describe the activity you’re taking part in — decorating a tree outside with edible treats for birds and other wildlife. Finally, you all bundle up and head outside with all the kids and their newly-made bird treats to decorate that special tree.
Along the way, kids learn how to listen for the calls of various birds and even feed chickadees from their hands. It’s a great combination of indoor crafting and a nature outing.
If you can’t make it, we are sharing a few quick and EASY recipes below — or download this PDF from Wild Birds Unlimited. If you want to get fancy Carrots Are Orange has a great recipe for baked bird treats here.
And please do check out next Saturday’s Christmas Bird Count for kids — a kid-friendly introduction to help you and other nature-loving families get started identifying winter birds. It’s lead by expert guides and you register here. It’s PWYC when you arrive at High Park Nature Centre — set an alert on your phone! — next Saturday at 9 a.m.
So here are those bird treat recipes. Warning: you might want to put old clothes or a craft apron on your kiddo.
1. Pinecone Treats
Attracts: Woodpeckers, Chickadees, Nuthatches, Cardinals
You’ll need: a selection of pinecones, lard or shortening (in a tub: it will make life easier), popsicle sticks or butter knife for spreading and a bag of black-oil sunflower seeds or mix seed in a shallow bowl or plate. You might want extra plastic plates to put the ‘snacks’ on.
• Tie a loop string to the top of the pinecone — or thread it through with an embroidery needle
• Have your child smear the lard or shortening all over the sides
• Roll the greasy pinecone in seed until it’s all covered! Press any loose seeds in, set aside on a plate.
2. Yuletide Log O’ Lard
Attracts: Woodpeckers, Chickadees, Nuthatches
You’ll need: small medium pieces of branch about two-three inches in diameter, lard and sticks for spreading, black oil sunflower seeds. You will definitely want extra plates to put the finished snacks on.
• Spread the lard thickly over your little log
• roll the log in sunflower seeds spread out on a plate
Place the log outside in the morning on the ground or up on a fence. Sure, the squirrels will come check it out too but the only solution is just to learn to appreciate the squirrels! You will not defeat them.
3. Edible Garland
You’ll need a length of string or thick thread, a large-eyed embroidery needle, cut up fruit like apples, oranges, berries, cranberries, and a bowl of popcorn (for stringing and snacking).
• Thread the needle with a length of string/thread your desired length.
• String pieces of fruit, popcorn and berries or cranberries in a pleasing arrangement
• These hang nicely from bare branches or use them to decorate evergreens
Some Tips on getting started with Winter Backyard Birding
• Watch what your birds are doing. Where do they like to eat? Compare the bird you see to nearby birds.
• Buy quality seed. Most big box seed mixes include ‘filler’ that birds visiting your yard or deck will scatter on the ground, uneaten. Black-oil sunflower seeds are the best choice to start. When you buy seed from specialist stores like Wild Birds Unlimited, Birdwatch, Urban Nature Store or Bragg’s (Bowmanville) you’ll get good tips and also find out what birds are being spotted locally. As I mentioned, you can now find quality seed at Fiesta Farms.
• The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s great website helped us quickly identify our visitors by size, shape or family.
• The illustrated flyer that Project FeederWatch puts out (pictured below) helps you narrow down your choices quickly: It shows only birds common to backyard feeders in eastern Canada:
Last winter was a great family exploration as we went from putting out seed on planks on the ground to trying out mixes of black-oil sunflower and white safflower seeds to hanging a feeder especially for cardinals. Our little guy, only two years old at the time, learned how to identify three or four species of birds within a few weeks.
There is nothing like hearing a little pipsqueak point out a ‘Mama Cardinal’ at the window. Kids love seeing birds eat what they put out for them, and watching and learning birds’ funny habits. It was tremendously gratifying winter pastime that made the cold so much more bearable.
So while the snow’s still on the ground, get out and feed those birds!
• • • Read more about upcoming events at the High Park Nature Centre here.
• • • You can join Project FeederWatch and be a part of citizen science. And consider becoming a member of Bird Studies Canada: Toronto now has its own Bird Studies Canada staff member Emily Rondel and you’re sure to meet her at the Christmas Bird Count for Kids and other bird-related events.
• • • You can also support the Tommy Thompson Park Bird Research Station, and set a calendar alert to visit them when they open for spring migration.
Helen Spitzer is a birder-come-lately and also edits Bunch Family.