Backyard birding

From the Nov. 24, 2014 Horticultural Society meeting, compiled by Beatrice Milner

Since Ken Orich started keeping track of the birds in his Lethbridge yard, he has seen the numbers rise each year, from 24 species in 2008 to 75 so far this year. The increase coincides with the addition of features that attract birds.
He told the Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society everyone is a birder, even if they don’t know it. “Everyone watches for the first Robin of the year. Most people can name at least 15 birds without even trying.”

Shrubs and trees, water features, bird feeders and bird houses attract birds to your yard, where you can observe and learn about them and just enjoy them, he says.
Ken offers the following tips for each of the four bird attractors:

Shrubs and trees
Better to go native if you can. Migration, breeding and nesting, etc. is tied in to the native plants growth. Birds will eat the insects native to those native plants. Birds use them directly as a food source. They provide nesting spots and safety from predators. A backyard that is designed to attract birds will also attract other pollinators. Flowerbeds left for the winter provide cover for overwintering insects (ladybugs) and flowers that provide a seed source. Most birds like to be close to cover so the more shrubs you have, the better the birds like it. A good mixture of shrubs and trees provides layering from ground to canopy for the birds.

Water features
Water is essential for your garden but also for birds. If you have water, the birds will come. It can be a fountain, a bird bath or just a bowl of water. Birds are attracted to the sound of water – a waterfall is better than a bowl. A jug with a pinhole that allows water to drip will still attract them. It is best if the water feature is close to cover. Start them early and keep them late. Keep the water only 1 to 2 inches deep. Birds still need water in the winter. Put out a bowl of tepid water in the middle of the day in the winter. It’s nice if the water feature is close to a window so that you can observe them easily. A water feature also provides children and handicapped people with an opportunity to observe the birds.

Bird feeders
Feeders may be kept going all year although few birds will come in the summer. Few birds feed their young seeds. Don’t worry about leaving for holidays. The birds will come back. Many types of feeders: tray, tube, hopper, suet. You can even drill holes in a log and smear bacon grease, lard or peanut butter in the holes. We don’t get many hummingbirds – few in the spring. In the fall, during migration, we do have them pass by. Put out hummingbird feeders in mid-July. Feeders really give you the opportunity to photograph and identify the birds coming to your yard. Often winter plumage is much different from summer plumage. Keep your binoculars handy. And watch them while they fly: learn to identify them in the air.

• Suet is favoured by woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches
• Sunflower seed (black oil) for finches, sparrows, juncos, grosbeaks, chickadees
• Mixed seed for sparrows, finches, doves, blackbirds, grackles, pigeons
• Nectar for hummingbirds and orioles
• Niger seed (Thistle) for goldfinches, pine siskins, redpolls
• Sometimes birds at the feeders become the food.

You will get house sparrows, which can be annoying— but when birds see other birds feeding, they will be attracted to them. To separate the types of birds, separate the types of feed by 10 to 20 feet.


• Keep a window screen under the feeders to catch some of the seed that’s scattered around. This captured seed will also be eaten by ground feeders.
A recent study in 2012 found that cats kill 1.3 billion birds per year. Good cover for the birds also provides good cover for the cats.
• Remember to clean your feeders out with a bit of bleach periodically.
• if a bird hits your window, get them standing up on their feet right away. They can’t breathe on their backs. They may stay there for several hours before they are able to fly away.

Some birds (magpies, jays) may hide food. They have excellent memories and can find these stashes.
If you don’t want to be bothered with the mess, plant the type of flowers, shrubs and trees that produce seeds that birds eat and leave them out all winter. (Sunflowers, coneflowers, all types of berries, maples, cherries). These plants will all attract insects as well for birds that prefer them.

Bird houses
Bird houses are one of the lease influential factors in attracting bids. The size or the box and the hole and the location will determine the type of bird that nests there. Bully birds such as House Sparrow and Starlings may take over the bird houses. Bird houses do add a nice decorative touch to the garden. Some birds (robins and flycatchers) will nest on a platform. Even if they don’t use them for nesting, birds may use them in foul weather or to provide security from predators.

Here are some pointers to help you watch and enjoy the birds.
• Use a pair of binoculars.
• Birds of Alberta – a good starter book and it’s inexpensive.
• Keep a notebook handy to write down your observations.
• A checklist for your area – you can get these at the Nature Centre.
• A camera will provide memories and will help you ID and share what you’ve seen. Does your camera have a burst feature?
• An annual garden list will help keep track. Write down the first time you see the bird in the spring. Soon you can see patterns showing when to expect different species.
Websites to check out:,
Facebook page called Birds of Alberta

Ken says as a birder, you’ll be entertained, surprised even shocked. You’ll learn new things and notice detail you hadn’t seen before. “By adding features, you’ll be able to enjoy the greater variety of birds attracted to your backyard.”
He cautioned about the possibility of bird feeders transmitting disease.  The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a great source of info on all things bird, and here is a link to explore.
Ken Orich is a Lethbridge naturalist, photographer and birder. He was born in Lethbridge and is currently on the executive of the Naturalists Society; his photographs can be seen on the Helen Schuler website. He worked for the Alberta Forest Service for many years and then retired in Lethbridge.

2 thoughts on “Backyard birding

  1. Good morning
    For 2 days in a row I have seen what I think are purple finches in my trees. A male and a female. Are they common in Lethbridge?

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