Watching Winter Birds

🕔Dec 01, 2011

The birds that overwinter in Dawson Creek are tough, and the people who count them seem to take that as a personal challenge. Organizer Mark Phinney says that the Dawson Creek Christmas Bird Count (CBC) has never been cancelled, even when temperatures have dropped to -39 C.

“Dawson Creek is usually the northern-most count in BC,” he says. Since 1999 he has been volunteering with about 12 other people to make sure the count happens every year. His advice for managing a very cold day is practical: “Dress warm, wear good mittens, and bring some hot chocolate.” He concedes that volunteers do occasionally go indoors or sit in a vehicle to warm up.

The Christmas Bird Census began on Christmas Day, 1900, in 25 communities across the US and Canada. Previously, the traditional Christmas activity that involved birds was the Christmas Side Hunt, in which hunters went out to see who could shoot and kill the most birds. As conservation awareness grew, American ornithologist Frank Chapman suggested that the public could help protect birds by participating in a census rather than a hunt. The Christmas Bird Count now takes place in over 2,000 communities across North and Central America and the Carribean.

Several other communities in the north have Christmas Bird Counts, including Ft. St. James, Prince George and Smithers. In each participating community, a 24-km diameter count circle is divided into sections where small teams go out between dawn and dusk and count as many birds as possible. Teams are organized so more-experienced birders go with novices.

“It’s open to anyone—you don’t have to be an expert,” says Rosamund Pojar, organizer of the Smithers CBC. “The volunteers just go out and count what they can.” Even if you really don’t know anything about birds, you can go with somebody who does. “Winter birding is the best way to start birding because you don’t have as many species to worry about, and the birds are more visible because there aren’t as many leaves for them to hide behind.”

The CBC data is used by scientists to monitor population trends of different species. Although there are limitations on the data because the number of volunteers varies from year to year and they are not trained at a professional level, the information is still very important, and in some areas the data sets are more than 100 years old.

Phinney says that Dawson Creek records about 20-24 species per year, which is not many compared to other areas because they are so far north. However, his count can boast the highest number of common ravens recorded in all the CBCs across Canada, with over 1,500 last year.

While Smithers cannot claim the highest raven count, Pojar recounts that the group does have the chance to see all four species of chickadee: black-capped, mountain, chestnut-backed, and boreal. The total species count in Smithers has ranged from 35 to a high of 58 species (recorded in 2001).

Sighting an owl or a hawk is always a highlight, and at the end of the count the teams gather to share their finds.

The count takes place anytime from December 14th to January 5th depending on the community, and participants should register ahead of time. To participate in your area, visit the Bird Studies Canada Christmas Bird Count webpage at, and contact the organizer as soon as possible. Pre-registration is required; a fee of $5 applies to help offset costs.

Close to home
Attracting birds to the backyard is a more casual way to appreciate our feathered friends in wintertime. On cold days when you don’t want bundle up, birds can be observed from indoors with a hot drink in hand. By following these tips, you can help promote bird health and prevent unwanted wildlife interactions.

Black-oil sunflower seed is the preferred food choice of many birds including chickadees, nuthatches and grosbeaks. Niger seed will attract finches, pine siskins and redpolls. Millet (both white and red) is often found in wild birdseed mixes, but many western birds will avoid eating it if other choices are available.

Suet is animal fat (most commonly beef) and is often mixed with seed and oatmeal. Suet will attract woodpeckers, juncos, jays, chickadees and nuthatches. Peanut butter is not good for birds on its own, because it is doesn’t harden and is sticky. When birds preen themselves the peanut butter sticks to their feathers, causing loss of insulation. To avoid this, mix peanut butter with seed and suet.

Other foods such as cracked corn and fruit will attract an even greater variety of birds and, depending on where you live, you might get ruffed grouse or bohemian waxwings.

A low-maintenance way of feeding winter birds is to leave seed-bearing garden plants (like sunflowers and coneflowers) standing rather than cutting them down in the fall. You might look like a lazy gardener to your neighbours, but the increased bird activity should make up for it.

Feeders: tips and tricks
It is important to think about the type of feeder and location, as well as what other animals might be attracted to the easy food. Squirrels and crows can be a nuisance, since they will scare off the smaller birds that you are hoping to attract and eat what you set out. This problem can be addressed by using a feeder that is designed to close when a heavier creature sits on the perch. Platform feeders are easy to build and maintain, but should be cleaned frequently, since bird faeces carries salmonella bacteria. Dirty feeders can contribute to a high concentration of salmonella, and when birds eat the contaminated seed they become sick and die.

Feeders are best positioned where there is cover, such as trees and shrubs. If you have cats, it is a good idea to place a wire fence around the feeder to make sure that your bird feeder doesn’t become a cat feeder. To prevent bears ripping down your feeder, wait until the first really cold weather or heavy snow to start feeding; hopefully by then the bears are hibernating. Sometimes suet balls will disappear completely, bag and all; if so, you may have a marten in the neighbourhood. To discourage this kind of robbery, hang suet in a metal cage by a chain.

Birdfeeders will attract songbirds, and songbirds will attract predators such as owls, hawks and northern shrikes. Try not to begrudge these larger birds their food, as they need to survive the cold winter too.

Making birdseed balls is a fun activity in which the whole family can participate. Mix 
1 cup rendered suet with 1 cup peanut butter in a pot on low heat. Mix in 3 cups of seed, 1 cup oats and half a cup of flour. Cut a piece of sturdy string and tie a large knot in the end. Pack the mixture around the end of the string so the knot is in the centre. Place in the freezer, or outside if it is colder than about -15C, and leave overnight or until the seed balls don’t fall apart (be careful that you put it in something so other animals don’t drag them away). You can also mix in berries and fruit to make things more interesting. Once hardened, take the seed balls outside to hang on trees like Christmas decorations. Kids enjoy the making and hanging, and you might get a few minutes of rare holiday peace as they watch the chickadees dive-bomb their creations.