Winter is for the birds

Participate in the Christmas Bird Count and, who knows, you might become hooked on watching our fine, feathered friends.

by Ben & Mark Cullen

It’s fair to report we’ve acquired a lot of knowledge about backyard birding from Birds Canada and one of our greatest resources is Jody Allair, director of community engagement. Here are some highlights we’d like to share that outline a little of what we’ve learned:

Blue jay

Birds do not need us to feed them

Many well-intentioned feeders of birds (vs. birdfeeders) believe that wild birds become dependent on us for food. However, other than perhaps during the coldest days of the year and the days of deepest snowfall, birds are more than capable of finding their own food from natural sources.

They are much like us in that they will take the easiest path to a meal, and if it happens to be at your feeder, that’s where they’ll congregate. The good news, however, is that you are free to go on vacation and not feel guilty about leaving an empty birdfeeder.

Use the appropriate seed

Birds are foragers: they find food in some of the most unlikely places, like the seed heads of ornamental grasses in your yard. Consider what kinds of birds you wish to attract and put out the appropriate seed in your feeders. Here is a short list from Bird Studies Canada:

• Black oil sunflowers/premium mixed seeds attract cardinals, black-capped chickadees, mourning doves, dark-eyed juncos, song sparrows and common grackles (we have learned that every bird in the kingdom has a beneficial role to play in the scheme of things, grackles included).

• Suet and bird peanuts (not peanuts for human consumption because birds should not have salt) attract blue jays, red-breasted nuthatches, downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches and hairy woodpeckers.

• Nyjer/black oil sunflower seeds attract house finches, American goldfinches, purple finches, common redpolls and pine siskins. Use a nyjer feeder and watch the bird population scrap over who gets the spoils first. Entertaining, granted, in a passive way.

• Fruit attracts the American robin. Note that much of the fruit on your crab apple and mountain ash trees will be foraged by robins who decide that it is a good idea to stay here over winter. They usually strip a fruit-bearing tree clean after the first heavy snowfall.


With so many plants that birds love, we simply can’t list them all. The seeds of their favourite plants are what they are really interested in. Broadly speaking, the following plants are bell ringers for attracting birds: ornamental grasses, Joe Pye weed, echinacea, cedars and rudbeckia. And when shopping at your favourite garden retailer this coming spring, be sure to look for plant labels that state “Attracts birds.”

A red cardinal and a house finch.


This is the single most impactful feature that you can add to your yard in your effort to attract birds, apart, that is, from a full birdfeeder. Birds need water to drink and bathe: simple as that.

Once again, they have a few things in common with people. A half barrel or a full-blown pond and stream work wonders. One of us, Mark, has five birdbaths in his yard (at last count) which are all used.


Birds need shelter to breed and for protection from cold, wind, snow and enemies like hawks, falcons and neighbourhood cats. Especially cats. The best protection you can provide for wild birds are evergreens that grow tall and thick. Cedars, spruce, fir and such like will also work like a charm.

Location, location, location

Keep in mind that birdfeeders and birdbaths should be located within a metre of a window, or more than 10 metres from a window. Within a metre birds cannot build up enough speed to hurt themselves too seriously if they hit the window, and more

than 10 metres away provides them an opportunity to veer away from the window when they realise that it is not a thoroughfare to another part of your garden.

Bird count

Birds Canada is the largest and most sophisticated organization of its kind. There are over 20 full-time employees, including several well-educated and enthusiastic ornithologists who study birds very carefully. Each year, these specialists depend on the public – people like you and us – to help them determine the migration patterns of our wild bird species as well as population growth and decline.

You can become a citizen scientist by taking part in the largest bird count in the country – The Christmas Bird Count – between Dec. 14 and Jan. 5. To learn more, go to It’s fun and educational and, who knows, you could very well end up hooked and skipping your own southern migration this winter in favour of birdwatching closer to home!

Mark Cullen is a Member of the Order of Canada. He reaches over two million Canadians with his gardening/environment messages every week. Receive his free monthly newsletter at Ben Cullen is a professional gardener with a keen interest in food gardening and the environment. He is the owner of Cullen’s Foods ( You can follow both Mark and Ben on and