How to help birds tricked by global warming

What to do to alleviate unexpected cold spells and a lack of food

Due to the effects of global warming, some birds are returning before spring properly comes around. As a result, they have to endure the harsh winter cold and a lack of food sources. However, there are ways we can help them.

“The most harmful weather for our birds is actually freezing rain,” says Paul Oliver, president of Treehelp.com and co-founder of The Urban Nature Store. “It’s because of two things: One, it’s actually very harmful to them in the cold and the rain. It takes so much energy for them to actually survive.

“More importantly, it covers all of their food sources. If [there’s] an inch of ice on the branches or the shrubs, they don’t have anything to feed on. Also, if it’s freezing rain, they don’t have anything to drink.”

If too many deciduous trees in your neighbourhood have lost their leaves, Oliver suggests putting up “roosting pockets” — small, hanging shelters made from woven, natural fibres — for smaller birds such as wrens and chickadees. A roosting pocket is a small house-like shelter for birds to nest in, especially useful on cold or rainy days.

Putting out food is another way to help both returning and remaining birds. Those that stay through the winter can feed. Those that are returning have a source to go to when natural sources are depleted. Though a migrating bird’s diet might be only 30 per cent human-assisted, Oliver says it does give them a helpful boost to get through the winter.

Jody Allair is the national manager of conservation outreach for conservation organization Bird Studies Canada. He suggested some ways in which people can attract birds to their garden and keep them safe.

“If you can, strategically plant species that not only look nice but also help provide food for birds,” Allair said. “Species like crab apples, serviceberries or mountain ash.”

Growing those trees not only provides shade for the birds in the summer, but it also brings food. Sunflowers and thistles also offer seeds that could feed hungry visitors. Many of these can grow during the winter, offering natural food sources to birds that do not migrate.

Feeding birds, offering a habitat and, most important of all, making your yard safe for them are crucial to inviting them into your garden.

Allair suggests that we do what we can to prevent window collisions and also to keep birds safe from cats and other predators. A good start would be keeping feeders at least nine meters away from a window.

Avoiding pesticides on your property makes it more bird-friendly. A diverse habitat also makes a garden bird-friendly for nesting cardinals, migrating birds such as hermit thrushes, juncos and warblers. Bird baths can be helpful; heated ones doubly so during the winter.

Birds that need to get energy quickly, such as hummingbirds and orioles, take well to citrus fruit and sugar water. It’s a good alternative to nectar.

Though spring has not arrived in its entirety, some migrating birds have already returned. These including tree swallows, purple martins and others.

“This cold weather we’re experiencing right now is certainly blocking a lot of these early arrivals a bit. So we’re not seeing the diversity of early spring birds that we normally get this time of year,” Allair said. “But it has started, and I think that the real migration floodgates are going to open next week.”

He believes the last weeks of April and early May are peak times for the long-distance tropical migrants. Those that take to Central/South America are typically insect-eaters that avoid bird feeders.

Those that make longer journeys do not move according to the weather, but do so at a fixed time, as they cannot gauge the patterns due to distance. Those that are closer can experience and wait for the changing weather to come before migrating.

“The next few weeks are a lot of fun with an incredible legacy of birds,” Allair said. “It’s the perfect time to get out and start seeing birds migrating.”

Those who would like to help bird conservation outside of their own garden can volunteer with BSC, FLAP Canada or Toronto Urban Bird Program, among many others across the country.