While at the Salt Spring Centre for Yoga I kept seeing this goldfinch feeding in the sunflowers. She was feeding herself as well as that plump little fledgeling. I was concerned about the state of her feathers, which as you can see looked patchy and discolored. Then I read an article on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about molting (It's Summer, Where did All the Birds Go? by Jessie Barry) and suddenly it all made sense. All birds need to go through a seasonal molt to replace old and worn feathers. During molting time, birds are vulnerable and they need places in your garden to hide from predators.
Last night I attended a fascinating talk on supporting birds in your garden by Vancouver Avian Research Centre board member Dr. Jason Jones. According to Jones, American Goldfinches are the only vegan birds in North America. Instead of feeding their young insects, they rely on seeds. Planting sunflowers in your garden are a great way to support goldfinches and chickadees. With the growth of cities and suburban sprawl migrating birds are increasingly dependent on backyards for food, shelter and water. Even if your home doesn't fall on a migration path you can still support the birds that prefer to stay closer to your home all year round.
Jones stressed that feeding birds carries a serious responsibility. Seeds that fall from the feeder can start to compost and make birds sick. Migrating birds can become dependent on the food you put out for them and they will return to your yard expecting that resource and depending on it. Dr Jones stressed that the single most important thing you can do for birds is to set out sources of clean water at varying heights.
Migration is the most stressful part of a migratory bird's life and we can support them by creating a biodiverse habitat in our back yard. Birds need spaces to feed, nest, hide, and spend the night. Jones made the point that the birds need berries throughout the season, so a succession of different kinds of berry bushes which bloom and fruit at different times are very important for birds. This is true for bees which benefit from the flowers on these same bushes. Snowberry which has a long bloom season which is good for bees also has a long fruiting season which is great for bees. Jason says whatever attracts insects to your garden is good for birds and what attracts insects is "a vibrant plant community." Think of the morphology and density foliage of the plants in your garden, and make sure the plants are rich and varied. Just as there are oligolectic bees that are attracted to narrow types of pollen there are also birds that are specialists whose beaks evolved to crack open specific seeds. Those birds, such as the crossbills would be particularly vulnerable to loss of habitat.
One of my favorite bird-related facts Jones told us was that when the crows roost in Burnaby they meet to gossip and share information about food finds. The next day birds will follow the dude that brags the loudest about his feast. And if a crow snatches a cucumber or two from the vines on your balcony (this really happened to him), be prepared for a murder of crows to show up the next morning for brunch.
Jason Jones works in the area of enviromental impact assessment, especially in the area of wind-powered technology. He is grows 15 varieties of kale in his garden in Burnaby. Just don't tell the crows.