Urban Nature: Birds in Winter
As winter begins its icy approach, we human residents of Salt Lake start layering our clothes and fiddling with the thermostat. But what about the valley’s avian population? Like many animals, birds are forced to exert extra energy to survive during the cold months. Here are some tips from experts at the Tracy Aviary and Backyard Birds on how you can help.
Providing a variety of feed will give birds the energy they need in the winter while attracting a diverse population to your yard. Suet, favored by woodpeckers, black oil sunflower seeds, favored by kinglets, and nyjer seeds, favored by goldfinches, are some of the best at supplying birds with necessary nutrients. Avoid less nutritious “filler” mixes, which contain large amounts of milo, wheat and “other grains.” Birds are also happy to feast on your leftovers—anything from mashed eggshells for calcium to mealy apples and peanuts.
Open water sources, nesting boxes and dense brush, says Tracy Aviary’s Lindsay Hooker, are other important factors for wild birds. Cedar waxwings, robins and northern flickers—not commonly feeder birds—are especially attracted to bushes, trees and vines that hold onto their fruits and berries, such as hawthorn bushes, crabapples and Virginia creeper. According to Rob Blackhurst of Backyard Birds, water is especially key for birds at this time of year; if you have a pond, consider running the pump throughout the winter to keep the water open. If you have a birdbath, consider a de-icer. Birds need water to clean their feathers, and cleaner feathers make for better insulation against the cold.
If you provide these elements year-round for birds and other wildlife, you might want to get your backyard certified by the National Wildlife Federation.
Roaming felines can be a big problem for wild birds. Bird people (and cat vets) say it’s best to keep cats indoors, but at the very least, attaching a bell to your cat’s collar, placing feeders away from bushes (which act as cover for cats) and attaching seed-catching trays to feeders (keeping birds off the ground) can give birds a fighting chance.
About 50% of the birds in the valley are permanent residents, such as the black-capped chickadee, house finch and downy woodpecker. The other half are just flying through. Salt Lake is a big stopover for migrants on the Pacific and Central flyways. Keep your eyes open for waterfowl on their way to the Great Salt Lake—and if you’re feeling adventurous, head on over to the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area for a look at migrating bald eagles, great blue herons and tundra swans. And expect to see these visitors next year, too. Both migrants and locals, especially quail, develop feeding patterns and will return to areas they associate with food. This means keep feeding them!
The Great Salt Lake Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count (CBC)
This is the “longest running citizen science project in the world” according to the organization’s website. This year’s 114th count runs December 14 through January 5, 2014. CBC teams will cover particular areas in a 15-mile radius, recording the bird species and the number of birds they observe. According to the Tracy Aviary’s Conservation Scientist Carolina Roa, “The CBC is a great opportunity to be out, get to know local birds and help collect information about wintering birds to continue building trends on their abundance and distribution, which can determine conservation measures.” All birding levels are welcome.
Clare Boerigter fights wildfires in the summer and attends Grinnell College, where she is a senior majoring in Spanish, in the winter. Right now she is an intern at CATALYST magazine.