Hundreds of species of winter birds flock to feeders in Ontario

Cash registers at local bird stores have been ringing lately with the first blast of winter in southern Ontario.

The mercury was falling as fast as the snow in many areas, and bird lovers changed gears on the fly from watching the fall migration to winter bird feeding. Stocking up on sun­flow­er seeds and suet has be­come as much a seasonal ritual as stringing holiday lights, as bird lovers prepare for cardi­nals, finches, nuthatches, wood­peckers and the like.

Winter bird feeding is big business, no doubt because it is the number one connection to nature and wildlife for thous­ands of people. For armchair naturalists and hardcore wild­life enthusiasts alike, being able to watch dozens of birds just outside the living room window during the cold months has a big appeal.

"Feeding birds in winter is a great way to connect with nat­ure," said Caroline Schultz, executive director of Ontario Nature. "It’s a fun way for fam­i­lies to observe wildlife up close and an exciting way to learn about the natural world. Birds tell us so much about what’s happening in the envi­ronment around us."

While many species visit feeders with fairly predictable regularity, such as chickadees and goldfinches, there are sur­prising fluctuations in the numbers and species from year to year. Those changes illus­trate that bird populations are dynamic. Many species’ distri­bu­tions and  abundance have changed not only as a result of food availability or disease, but also as a result of changes in the environment, such as habi­tat availability, pollution levels, and even climate.

The new Atlas of the Breed­ing Birds of Ontario ( illu­strates the ups and downs of the province’s bird life in recent decades. The atlas explains and maps the changes in bird popu­lations, which explains much of what we see happening at feeders now. For example, the striking red-bellied wood­peck­er is expanding its range in Ontario, and can often be seen eating suet or peanuts at feed­ers. The northern cardinal has continued to expand into cen­tral and eastern Ontario, likely aided by winter bird feed­ing.

Even some birds of prey have increased in recent years. Sharp-shinned hawks have expanded their breeding range by 18 per cent province-wide in 20 years, and Cooper’s hawks have increased by 44 per cent, according to the atlas. Increases in southern Ontario have been particularly impressive. That reflects improved breeding habitat in some areas, adequate year-round food supplies, and diminishing levels of some pol­lutants, which had been nega­tively affecting popula­tions.

"Observations from winter surveys, such as Christmas bird counts and Project Feeder Watch, complement what we learned from the breeding bird atlas," added Jon McCracken, national program director with Bird Studies Canada. "The citi­zen scientists who participate in these projects collect vital information about bird popu­lations."

For example, bird estimates from feeder watchers is helping scientists figure out why purple finches, and even non-native house sparrows, are declining. Atlas data shows that both spe­cies have declined by about 20 per cent in 20 years.

Getting hooked on winter bird feeding is as simple as a trip to your local bird or out­doors store. Keeping feeders clean and well stocked once start­ing is important, and putting out fresh water daily can be as much of a draw as the food itself in some areas.

People can enjoy the birds on the coldest or snowiest day of the winter, and if people are keen they can take part in bird research projects organized by nature clubs and conservation organizations. So, winter bird feeding is an incredible win­dow on the natural world.

Ontario Nature is a not-for profit that works with over 140 member groups to protect Ontario’s habitats and wildlife, and connect people with nature through research, conservation campaigns, education and pub­lic awareness.

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Beck is a wildlife biologist and co-editor of  Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario.