By Evan Collins
Imagine this: It’s the early morning, you step outside with Tim Hortons coffee in hand. The light breeze drifts along the grass, mixing its sweet smell with your bitter drink. You might live in a city like Toronto, or a small suburb somewhere off a highway. One thing that wont change is mixed in with the morning drivers, children off to school, or your annoying neighbor grunting hello; is the endless, beautiful melody of Canada’s great birds playing along the wind. For all the attention given to the world and our growing care for it, our attention has been pulled away for other things. Birds still face some common misconceptions that we might not realize. In all the romp, rave and worry surrounding climate change, it might be the case you have forgotten about the little guy.
Take a look outside. Not the front yard, the back. Check your neighbors’ yards, don’t be nosey. You are likely to spot a bird feeder. Or perhaps a birdbath, or the occasional, hand-crafted house. Humans interact with our feathery fellows on just about every level possible each day. We feed them, we give them water, and we see their nests, or even contribute to them in ways we may not understand. Simply growing a tree, shrub, or flowers that produce seeds or nectar attracts the local birds. Robins pick through your fresh garden for worms and harmful beetles. Even if they are spooked by your cat, they will return every year. They are popular symbols for nations – the American eagle – or just prevalent in media. (Anyone remember The Hunger Games?) It may seem hard to believe common, every day actions could be harming these fine feathered friends.
Not that long ago, the common consensus was the same regarding many things now done by the average Canadian household for climate change. Recycling is the big one, alongside carpooling, composting, buying reusable containers and bottles, and being smart about food choices. These every day actions have become the nation’s starting point into solving the climate crisis. Reducing the average Canadian’s carbon footprint has become a point of policy as much as a way of life, even if those points of political policy are controversial.
These existing changes have already greatly affected the local wildlife in a positive way. Recycling has reduced the amount of trash on the roads, and carpooling has made the air cleaner. Consider it: less greenhouse gasses means global warming slows down, which makes for less disastrous storms hazardous to birds. The ice storm back in 2013 was one of the most hazardous events to occur to birds in Ontario. Birds need to ruffle their feathers, which may let water in, and potentially freeze them to their perches. With rising temperatures comes worse winters; reducing humanity’s effect on the planet can help solve that.
But it isn’t always so radical. Either the local robin or a wild pond duck, grandmothers and grandfathers will be found handing out little crumbs of bread for them to eat. What your grandparents might not know is that feeding birds bread could actually be doing more harm than good.
Here are some things you can do to reduce the negative effect you have on wild birds and take better care of our feathered friends.
It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Telling grandma or grandpa to stop throwing scraps out the window might be a challenge in and of itself, especially when it seems like everyone does it. With the rise of composting its less common, but it seems like a done deal to throw bits of bread or the occasional meat scrap out to the backyard for birds to pick and eat. The classic scene of an old lady or man on a park bench tossing bread for the pigeons is almost a global icon.
Not all birds are like the local Seagulls, which will eat just about anything. In a blog published by Birds And Wild describes bread as the equivalent of a silent killer for birds. Through, it is not in the way you might expect.
Ever try a diet? The first thing many if not all diets tell you is to give up those calorie heavy treats. No bread, bagels, buns, biscuits, or brioche. Much like ourselves, birds do not benefit from eating bread or wheat-based products. In fact, its quite the opposite: it would be like if we just ate air. Birds fatten up on bread, but without any nutrition or other foods. Its good for the occasional treat, but when everyone on the block is giving out bread scraps, birds can easily fill their bellies on flour.
In fact, bread is so bad for birds it can mess with their flights during the season change. Birds that gorge themselves too heavily on bread can undergo vitamin deficiencies. This will weaken a bird’s muscles and immune system, making the travel south or across the sea impossible. It might not seem like a lot to toss a slice of bread outside but by comparing some morning toast to the size of a robin, the size similarity reveals it all. The confusion comes from the fact bread doesn’t directly harm birds, but rather stops them from getting the stuff they do need.
There are foods, however, that do directly harm birds.
Avocado, anyone? As tasty as this good-for-you food is, its bad for our local birds. Avocados contain Persin, naturally produced to fight of fungus in Avocados. This helpful little chemical is actually severely toxic to birds! Most of the time it causes intense respiratory problems, lung damage, which impedes flight. Don’t leave any guacamole outside, or that nesting blue-jay might wind up dead a few hours later.
Seeds are a chickadee’s favourite, right? Turns out, some seeds might just be more harmful than you think. Some of these little dangers might appear familiar. Cherry pits, Apple seeds, and peach pits. Plum, apricot, and nectarine pits and seeds. See the pattern yet? Parents across Canada constantly warn their children not to swallow these, because they contain cyanide. What might be a drop in the bucket for a human, barely an effect, is the equivalent of taking a spoonful for a bird! These little suicide pills are some foods you should never put in your bird feeder.
Feeding birds the right food is one step, but not the only one. Humanity’s footprint on the environment has far surpassed just the need to rotate crops, and it is no different for birds. It is all well and good to feed your local birds the right things, but without house and home they won’t be coming at all.
Birds, and trees. Peanut butter and jam. Cheese and crackers. Baseball games and hotdogs. Eggs and… you get the point. Birds and trees are inseparable as dogs and bones, and just as important too. Their symbiotic relationship goes deeper than the average eye sees every day. Birds’ clean pests from trees, make their homes from the leaf litter and scraps, and spend most of their time inside of their wide branches. They protect birds from storms and hide them from predators during the night. It makes sense then that to protect our local birds, it is important to protect the trees too.
The biggest mistake might actually be one of the most common. Think back, maybe it was yourself or maybe it was your parents, but one day they took a look at the big old maple in the backyard and considered it was about time for it to go. Either it was because of the leaves covering their garden every fall, maybe it has started to lose branches, or perhaps it posed a danger to their house. Either way, the tree came down, and everything was fine because the planet a young, new tree somewhere else; a process called reforestation. Cut down a tree, plant a tree, that’s how it works, right?
Wrong. A number of publications have already detailed just how important old trees are for birds. Old, large trees provide the protection and leaf and twig litter that birds need. One for keeping them safe from storms, and another for building their ever-important nests. Birds are territorial, though we might not notice it, so cutting down their home might make them go and fight others for space in their tree.
Some birds rely on old trees for food. The staccato tap of a woodpecker is one of the most alluring sounds of the summer. Woodpeckers favour older trees because more of the creepy crawlies they eat have found their way inside through the old bark or knots. Newer trees are susceptible to other types of bugs but are much harder to punch through. A woodpecker would be doing double the work for half the meal!
…And Singing Chickadees
Remembering to feed birds the proper kind of food sounds easy, but it is hard to prevent a tree from being cut down if it needs to go. There are some more simple solutions the average household can do to help out wild birds, ones that do not require a lot of effort.
Simply not littering is a big one. Ever see videos of trash being removed from sea turtles? It is the same thing, birds, especially seagulls, can sometimes mistake garbage for food and have themselves a plastic meal. It can often get them killed, or sometimes larger plastics and garbage get stuck to their body somehow. Simply not littering is just as important for the climate as it is for the birds that live there.
Another reason is that the garbage pollutes the water supply. Birds are active bathers, probably more than your average teenager for sure. They wash and drink from puddles, rivers, pools, and just about anything they can get to. Plastics, papers, or poured soft drink can pollute the water supply, which can damage the birds’ feathers or make them sick.
Something a bit more unconventional: don’t let your pets outside. A dog might have a lesser effect, but birds instinctively react to cats. Even if the cat has no interest in birds, just as they seem to not have interest in anything else, birds will smell or see the animal they consider a predator and hide. Letting your pet out disrupts the natural life of the birds, often leading to disrupted hunts for food like worms or fallen seeds. Next time your cat goes outside, listen for the song change between the birds. They know your cat is there.
Another, unexpected result might be the attraction of predators. Owls will sometimes pick up and kill cats, wild or not. They will move their hunting ground to your back yard if they get the chance at a meal, which puts other birds in danger. Nature is a delicate balance, and even if they were once wild, pets are no longer a part of it.
So, there you have it; a handful of ways to protect your local feathered friends. Some might seem hard; others might seem extremely easy. Much like getting into recycling or carpooling, it is all about habits better for the environment and those within.
Oshawa Pest Control: 3 Myths About Birds In The Winter
Trudeau calls for global carbon tax at COP26 summit | CBC News
Reforestation & Carbon Offsetting – Tree Canada
Losing Urban Trees—and the Wildlife that Depends on Them | Good Nature Travel Blog
Pileated woodpecker – Wikipedia
Is Your Trash Harming Birds? — Edmonton & Area Land Trust
Sea Turtle with Straw up its Nostril – “NO” TO PLASTIC STRAWS