Beyond Your Backyard: Spend Some Time With Mother Nature and Her Featherland Friends
By Kimberly J. Epp
Parents often hear the all too familiar, “Mom I’m bored. There’s nothing to do here!”
Well, the next time that happens, tell them to dress warm, stop by the grocery store and pick up a small amount of pine nuts in the bulk bins (Walmart, Safeway), and don’t forget the camera! Tell them you are taking them on an adventure they will never forget!
At the same time, you can help increase the survival rates of these small birds. Feeding birds over the winter greatly aids their survival rates, especially during bitterly cold temperatures, and when food is less available.
If you look back to my last article on decorating a tree for the birds, that is another holiday activity you can do with your kids. Additional recipes are so included on the Moose Jaw Nature Society page. Then you can decorate your tree for the birds - or even do so at Wakamow!
Have you ever felt the ever so soft touch of a tiny bird foot on your hand? Would you like to? Would you like to learn how to hand feed the birds right within your own yard? Then read on!
One-on-one time with the birds at Wakamow, at the community feeder, is good for all involved. The tiny feeder birds must eat from dawn to dusk to maintain body temperatures, and survive the cold nights. It helps by connecting us to nature. If we can get our children connected to nature, they will work harder to care for it when they inherit an earth that is no longer the same.
All of us are born with compassion, but it is up to adults to nurture that compassion in children. Mentor a child. It is the best experience, and one you’ll never regret. When I was able to do more tours, my ‘little sister’; went with me virtually on every one of them - over 8 years! Plus she explored the outdoors with me nearly every weekend. Start a spark in their lives. You never know how far they may go. Mentor a child who doesn’t have much, and try to turn his/her life in a positive direction.
So before you head out to Wakamow, you need to know the common birds that will be there.
Common birds include the tiny, cheery Black-capped Chickadee. A tiny black and white bird with a black cap, with the common “I’ve found food” call; “chick-a-dee-dee-dee!”
Then there is the tiny Red-breasted Nuthatch. You will hear their “beep”- like calls. They have longer beaks, as they also retrieve insects from under the bark, and they have orange breasts. Then there is the slightly larger white-breasted Nuthatch. They look similar, except a bit larger, are often alone, and have a white breast.
If you spread some peanut butter on the trees, you will attract both nuthatches, and then also likely the Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers - and maybe even a Northern Flicker.
Did you know that the woodpecker’s tongue is so long that it curls around its brain? The reason for this is because it acts as a cushion when the bird pecks in the wood for insects. It cushions their brain against the trauma. The Hairy Woodpecker is the larger one, and its beak is longer, basically the same length as its head. It is also a bit more skittish than the Downy, so you usually need a good lense to get a decent photo. The Downy woodpecker is smaller, and its beak is half the length of its head. If you see a red mark at the base of its head, it is a male woodpecker. Male downies are more likely to come to your hand, although usually away from the feeder and closer to the path by the river. (See photo below).
You may also see a sparrow-like bird that is pinkish/red. That is a Male house finch. Females are drab. It always seems that way in the animal world! If you’re lucky, you may hear a raven nearby. There may even be a Blue Jay. They prefer peanuts in the shell.
Some years there may be Common Redpolls, although unlike their name, they aren’t common. They migrate here sporadically for the winter from the arctic. They are very beautiful, tiny birds. They have red caps and the males have a rosy chest. They dig burrows in the snow at night to keep warm. I’ve also been able to hand feed them in the past. There may be some Juncos hanging around on the ground, and even sometimes some Mourning Doves. Although there may be several species I’ve missed, this is just a quick list of the common ones.
Feeding birds is a calming activity that is wonderful if you experience depression, anxiety, PTSD and many other disorders. It is a great activity for all ages. It brightens a bad day. It is often humorous. And the great thing is that these birds (at Wakamow) are used to noise, so it is okay to laugh - and laugh you will when a chickadee lands on your phone and stares at you.
Or a nuthatch sits on your finger before you even bring your pine nuts out! Or the birds don’t even wait for you to take the nuts out of your container - and promptly steal from the container. The best is even when they take a nut from your hat. Or try a selfie! Have fun with it.
The birds will know if you are nervous, or feel ill at ease, so on your first trip, it sometimes helps to go with someone who the birds already know. Yes, many small birds can recognize faces and voices! That’s why I get bombarded with my little flutter butts as soon as I open the door at my home. Gandalf the White, my White- breasted Nuthatch beeps and waits patiently. The Red-breasted siblings (that nested in my tree this summer) have little patience, so before I give them their treats, it is the opportune time to stick up my hand and offer them some one nuts.
Sometimes the chickadees land as well, and the fat (sorry, slightly chunky) squirrels all run down the tree, and sometimes come to my hand as well. They are the Fox Squirrels (see photo), and have a fox-like coloring and reddish belly, while Red Squirrels are redder, have ear tufts, and white bellies. Squirrels help disperse seeds, and although they may be increasing their population here in Moose Jaw, they do not destroy it as we humans do. Urban wildlife offer us a chance to connect with nature. You can even see a herd of mule deer down in Crescent Park.
Do, however try to go with someone who has some knowledge of the area and the birds the first time you go. As said, smaller birds like chickadees and nuthatches will come to those they recognize - even after months or years of separation! There is so much we have yet to learn, and we need to ensure we protect our species so we will still have animals to teach our children about. If we don’t start caring, it is said that 50 per cent of all species on earth will be gone by 2050. We are basically losing a species daily, and we can each make a difference. There is still a window of time!
So basically there are three keys to hand feeding...
(1) Presence - until your resident birds get to know you and feel comfortable with your presence, or even if you happen upon birds that are already accustomed to hand feeding, it will be difficult until they get to know you. So the birds must get used to your calming presence.
(2) Motion - the absence of motion is critical until the birds get to know you. So always move very slowly. Birds instinctively regard sudden movements as a threat to their safety.
(3) Timing - the optimal times and conditions are between sunrise and 10 am - or the day before - or the day after - a severe ice or snow storm.
When I worked at Beaver Creek as an environmental educator, I got a grant during my last season there for bird seed/suet/feeders. The grant was over $600 from the Saskatoon Zoo Society and Nature SK. So I scheduled myself to work on Saturdays as well, as I planned to make treats to place near the deck in attempts to keep the birds from hitting the windows...and it worked! The birds came closer, and so as they even got to know me.
I would stand near the areas they knew their homemade treats would be hung, and instead of hanging them, I would stand there with my hand full of pine nuts. It didn’t take long, and every day I fed the Red-breasted Nuthatches, chickadees and even the redpolls from my hand. So each Saturday I was baking bird cookies and homemade suet treats. Talk about spoiled birds! But what a wonderful and inspiring thing to see children "land' a chickadee for her first time in their lives. It never gets old!
So, basically stand beside your own feeder daily each morning for several minutes. Then one day don’t fill the feeder. Instead, the feeder will be the nuts in your hand. If it doesn’t work, fill the feeder and try again tomorrow. It doesn’t take long! One of our new members was out filling her feeder today, and the nuthatches were flying around. So she put her hand out, and one took a pine nut. Another friend recently moved and it didn’t take long for the wildlife to find her. As soon as she walks outside, the nuthatches fly to her hand. When she drives up into her driveway, they are waiting for her.
I find it very peaceful in summer to sit outside with a good book, a camera beside, a coffee, as I watch the birds and squirrels at the feeders and birdbaths. So one final thing to mention is the importance of water - even in winter. Birds can get water through snow, or they can find natural springs. But you can help them further by putting a special bird bath heater into your bird bath. But place large rocks within for them to stand on, and to prevent them from bathing. You can also use a heated dogs dish, also with large rocks within. This can also provide some water for stray cats. Cats kill millions of songbirds a year, and it isnt an easy life for a stray cat. If you see a stray cat, call SCAT in Moose Jaw at (306) 955-7258. You can also put out food, water, and make an insulated shelter - but for the safety of ALL creatures, it is best to get them off of the streets.
I will be conducting a Christmas scavenger hunt and bird feeding Program on Saturday, December 8th at 3:30 pm. It is part of our Christmas event, however even if you are not a member, feel free to join us. We will meet at the burger cabin parking lot. Then we will drive to the feeder. Initially, while the birds are active, we will hand feed the birds. Everyone will get their own container of pine nuts and oilseed to use, and to keep.
After we have fed the birds, I will give everyone scavenger hunt sheets and show some photos of common tracks and other signs of wildlife. Then off you go and look for the items on the sheet. Go in pairs or alone, or in a group.
The first one to successfully finish the hunt receives a Christmas cracker. At 5:30, members (or those interested in membership), will meet at 5:30 at the Heritage Inn. Everyone is welcome, gets a cracker, and as President I am demanding that we all have fun - which I’m sure we will! If you’re interested in memberships, they are only $15 per year, $5 for child and family rates are also available.
I also do nature programs through Chickadee Nature Tours, and a wide array of programs are available.
For example, “Winter Birding and Animal Tracking”, “Winter Bird Feeders”, “Endangered Species”; (with my ferret, Sam), “Creek Dipping”, “Predator and Prey”, “Seeds on the Move”, “Bird and Bee Baths”, etc...or I can cater to your group. I have done school programs, girl guides, birthday parties, etc.
As I haven’t done programs for a while, fees are still being explored. BUT the first group to book a bird feeding/track walk on a Saturday or Sunday will get their program at no charge. I can be reached at (306) 681-3198.
Did you know? A chickadee must eat one third its body weight each day.
Did you know? A black-cap can change direction in 3/100 of a second.
Did you know? Chickadees and nuthatches will stash tens of thousands of seeds - and (unlike squirrels) will remember where they are!
Did you know? Birds keep their beaks, feet and legs at low temperatures and instead focus on heating their core. They puff out their feathers on cold days to trap warm air within, like when you wear a warm jacket.
Did you know? Chickadees huddle during the long cold nights, and put their bodies into a state of hypothermia to conserve energy.
Did you know? Nuthatches usually walk down trees head first.
To donate seed to the Wakamow feeder, please contact Kelly Wiens at (306) 693-4530.
Epp is an Environmental Educator and writer. She is also the President and field trip coordinator for the Moose Jaw Nature Society.