Feeding birds in winter: a good or a bad idea?

Bohemian Waxwing
Credit: Yuri Timofeyev Flickr Creative Common
Jaseur boréal
  • Jaseur boréal
  • Sittelle à poitrine blanche
  • Cardinal rouge femelle
  • Bruant à gorge blanche
Feeding birds in winter: a good or a bad idea?

Have you noticed that we’ve been seeing more northern cardinals over the last ten years or so? Did you know that these birds have seen their population increase by 200 percent in little more than 20 years?

They’ve played their cards right and become the true flexitarians of the avian world. How? By tailoring their diet according to the food available in cities, meaning primarily what urban birdfeeders have to offer.

The situation of nesting birds in Québec

If the northern cardinal population is doing well, the same can’t be said for most species of nesting birds in Québec – such as chimney swifts or purple martins – whose numbers are shrinking. That decline is above all the result of human interventions: the construction of buildings, the destruction of their natural habitats, intensive agriculture and the use of pesticides.

On top of these changes, birds have to deal with the difficulties of winter. So what can we do to help foster bird biodiversity during the cold season?

For or against feeders and baths?

A number of studies mention that spending more time in contact with nature will have a beneficial impact on mental health. Installing a birdfeeder or birdbath makes it possible to discover our winged neighbors and spend time marveling at them, in addition to maintaining the connection with nature that’s so dear to us. This source of food may be appreciated by the birds, but it’s often not essential to their survival.

Feeders could even have negative effects for certain species of birds: an increase in predation and the spread of disease, and modification of their ranges. In addition, birdbaths are not recommended over the winter. A bath on a day that’s too cold could prove fatal for birds.

In order to help birds in winter in the long run, ideally you have to get started in the spring.

Far and away the best thing to do is to supply birds with shelter and food sources by making an arrangement mainly made of native plants. You can plant conifers like juniper and cedars (thuja), where they can protect themselves from bad weather and predators, as well as setting up a space with fruit-bearing shrubs that can feed them for a good part of the winter season, such as mountain ash, holly, chokeberry and certain viburnums.

Besides making life easier for birds in the long term, this will have a positive impact on biodiversity by attracting pollinating insects.

You can refer to the My Space for Life Garden program for further guidance on helping birds.

If it’s impossible to lay out an appropriate landscape for avian fauna, installation of a feeder remains a good alternative. The important thing is to get information from experts: the organization QuébecOiseaux, for example, will be able to advise you.

Community science

Why not take advantage of the presence of our winged visitors to lend science a helping hand?

Did you know that almost 1,800 people contributed to the Second Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Southern Québec? They devoted more than 100,000 hours to collecting data on the ground in order to produce this colossal work!

Between 2010 and 2014, these amateur and professional ornithologists took part in this community-science project by observing and collecting data on the birds they came across in their yards or in the forest.

That invaluable information was gathered together via the eBird Québec website and application. Once analyzed and classified, this data is vital for drawing up a better portrait of avian biodiversity – something that will equip politicians so that they can make informed decisions with regard to protecting ecosystems.

Birdfeeders–a good idea?

Lastly, do we set up a birdfeeder, or not? The answer isn’t straightforward! Whether we install a feeder or lay out a piece of land, what matters is to get information from good resources so that we can offer the best to birds and to ourselves. In the meantime, we invite you to go spend some time outdoors, raise awareness among your loved ones and your members of parliament – and contribute to the eBird Québec project!

To learn more


Do you want to get involved?
Sign up for the Our Time to Act newsletter

Share this page

Follow us!

Subscribe to receive by email:
Add new comment
Anonymous's picture