Tall tales and grains of truth in bird care

Every year, Le Nichoir receives over 3,000 visitors at the Centre and some 6,000 phone calls and emails from individuals looking for help and advice on wild birds. As a tribute to the volunteers who work so hard with us, Susan addresses some of the most common myths we hear from the public and separates the truth from tall tales.

Myth: If you touch a bird, the bird’s parents will not take it back Truth: Most birds have a very poor sense of smell, and parents will not abandon their offspring if they are touched by humans. In other words, if you find a nest of baby birds or a nestling bird on the ground, you can place the bird back where it belongs, safe in the knowledge that the parents will claim it back.

Myth: Bread is a good source of food for birds Truth: Bread has very little nutritional value and is not recommended for feeding birds. Bread fills their stomachs with poor-quality food and distracts wild birds from eating more nutritious, natural food. In the worst cases, when bread gets wet, it becomes very sticky and can have a negative impact on birds’ digestive tract, which can sometimes lead to death.

Myth: Hummingbirds complete their migration by hitching rides on the backs of Canada Geese Truth: Geese and hummingbirds migrate individually, to different locations, at different times and don’t necessarily come from similar regions and habitats.

Myth: Birds like to drink milk Truth: Birds are lactose intolerant, meaning they are incapable of digesting the lactose found in milk. Most baby birds are fed high-protein diets, such as insects, small mammals and fish.

Myth: Injured wild birds like to be held and patted for comfort Truth: Wild birds see humans as predators. People often assume that the bird enjoys being held because the bird does not struggle or try to get away. For most wild birds, playing dead or staying still can save them from being eaten by predators. Imagine if you were being cuddled by a T-rex: you wouldn’t want to move either!

Myth: Birds will die from starvation if you remove the feeder Truth: Studies have shown that birds eat from various food sources, with much of their diet coming from nature. One study showed that only 25% of the diet of Black-capped Chickadees comes from feeders; the rest of their diet consisted of wild insects, seeds and grains. Birds will also use multiple feeders on different properties; so if you remove your feeder, the birds will just move along to another one.

Myth: Bird seed never goes bad Truth: Bird seeds need to be stored in a dry, cool location. When stored properly, seeds can last for several weeks and months, depending on the variety. But seeds can easily attract pests, such as moths and rodents, so it is important to place seeds in a sealed container. Make sure to discard any rotten, moldy or wet seed from the batch.

Myth: An injured bird can survive on its own in the wild Truth: In most cases, injured wild birds must be brought to the Centre as soon as possible. A bird that is unable to fly cannot get away from predators or find sufficient amounts of food, and so is likely to starve to death or get killed by a cat or other predator. A broken bone usually starts to calcify within just 48 hours, so it is important that a bird with a broken leg or wing be brought to Le Nichoir as soon as it is found. The faster it is brought in for help, the quicker the bird also receives medication that can kick in immediately.

Myth: Placing bells on cats will scare birds away Truth: Bells placed on cats do not scare or deter birds and are not a good way of protecting birds from cats. Birds have not evolved to associate the sound of a bell with a predatory cat, so it will not scare them off.

A very important question

I often use a plastic onion bag filled with seeds or buy the bell shaped mesh covered nyger seed to hang in my trees for the birds. Is this safe for them?

No, they are not safe for birds. On multiple occasions at Le Nichoir I have received birds entangled in these mesh bags. This past winter a Black-capped chickadee was brought to the Centre with its leg amputated from being stuck in a soft plastic mesh feeder. These feeders are dangerous and should not be used. Consider using solid plastic or metal small seed feeders instead. They not only are safer but are more durable and can be reused.

Regular cleaning is important

How do I clean bird feeders and baths?

Robin in bird bath Ideally bird feeders and baths should be cleaned thoroughly every two to four weeks. Regular cleaning helps to minimize the spreading of infectious diseases among birds. By cleaning, you are also removing any mould or harmful bacteria that, if eaten, can make birds sick.
Bird feeders
To clean bird feeders properly, remove all new seeds, mouldy seeds and any decomposing matter. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) suggests rinsing the feeder of any remaining debris with water, then scrubbing the feeder well and soaking it in a bleach solution (1 part bleach to 9 parts water) for 30 minutes. After soaking, rinse the feeder thoroughly and allow it to completely dry before refilling – this will help to prevent new seeds from rotting. [Read more…]

Ducks and swimming pools

How do I discourage ducks from coming into my swimming pool?

Ducks (mostly mallards) will sometimes use backyard pools as a water source. Pools are enticing environments for ducks, especially during nesting, because they provide a good source of protection from predators, and the surroundings can offer a great source of food. Ducks love to eat plant materials and invertebrates that are commonly found poolside.

So what can you do to prevent your pool from attracting ducks? [Read more…]

Question from Danielle in Hudson, QC

Migration means heading north in spring and south in fall, so why am I seeing geese heading north now?

It is true, the geese are flying north in fall! Geese are not in a hurry to head south, rather, they mosey along food patch to food patch. If the food is no longer available because it has been eaten or been covered by snow, then it really is time to move on. They also need open water where they can spend the nights safe from predators. This region offers both. With the Lake of Two Mountains and great forage in the fields around this area, we offer a great stop-over for these snow-birds.
[Read more…]

Question from Monique in Hudson, QC

I wanted to buy a heated bird bath but have had so much conflicting information. Is there a real problem with birds getting wet during winter?  Also, what bird bath is best for me to buy?

Watching birds enjoying a bird bath in summer brings me a great deal of pleasure. Being able to also provide a safe and reliable source of clean water means the birds in my own area can depend on this resource. But once the freezing weather begins we often stop offering water, hoping the birds find a source elsewhere. The lake, streams, puddles and eventually snow provide that essential water resource. However, having a heated water bath provides a real winter time treat for the resident birds. Unfortunately, this can bring some hassles.
[Read more…]

Question from Debbie in Hudson, QC

A Canada Goose has obviously been wounded, its wing hangs down on one side and is unable to fly. If we approach it, it heads into the lake and we don’t know how we can catch it. Do you have any suggestions?

It is so hard to watch this happening and simply stand by. Unfortunately, as much as you want to catch the goose it is determined you are not going to. The lake offers it safety and a rapid retreat happens as soon as it feels threatened. Also a frontal assault reinforces that you are a threat, so instead, set up a feeding station. There are a few considerations. The end goal is capture with the bird caught in either a wire cage or trapped in a fenced area. It also needs to be where the bird has easy access and the food is visible. If necessary start feeding it closer to the lake and slowly move the food source to your chosen site. Cracked corn, mixed grains and even wild bird seeds are suitable foods. If you have snow already covering the grass, any greens are a great treat. Spinach and lettuce also show up well as a cue to the bird that food is available.
[Read more…]

Question from Michele in Hudson, QC

What do you think about maintaining my bird feeders over the summer?

Bird feeding is a very popular activity and one that certainly helps our neighborhood birds, especially in winter. The question of feeding through the summer is, to my mind, a personal one.

When we feed in winter, we support our local birds with high energy snacks. In doing so, we help birds to survive through very difficult times by adding to their caloric intake. The foods we offer do not make a complete diet and our backyard birds will still eat a great range of foods that they forage for in our gardens and surrounding areas. Most song birds are highly insectivorous for a great part of their lives, and are in fact, totally insectivorous when young. Research has even indicated that those species we thought of as herbivores have surprised us by the large percentage of insects they need to consume to ensure healthy growth. Once adult, they include a wider range of foods in their diets. So cedar waxwings will start to forage for fruits, hummingbirds will drink nectar and woodpeckers and cardinals will actively seek seeds and nuts. The most important part of their diet is still the wide range of insects they will consume over the course of their day. Insects provide the required level of proteins and fats to help maintain their health and high metabolic rate. The seeds and suet we offer are rather like the quick energy fixes we get from a chocolate bar. Neither is a whole diet, although I suspect some teens think so!
[Read more…]

Question from June in Hudson, QC

How do you run a rehab centre? How much funding does the government provide?

The short answers – on a wing and a prayer and, very little.

I have been asked this question so many times, especially the question about funding sources and the assumption we get government grants. So, let me give you a peek into the workings of a rehab centre, specifically Le Nichoir. So what do you do when you find a bird in need of attention? Enter Le Nichoir. The phone call that you make to the centre will hopefully be answered immediately, unless the staff are busy as baby birds can be very demanding patients. If the bird needs human help, you will be invited to bring it to Le Nichoir. On admission, we try to gather as much information as possible, especially since the centre is obliged to submit an annual report to both the Provincial and Federal governments. To be allowed the privilege of doing rehabilitation, Le Nichoir pays an annual fee to the Provincial government. Ironically, Provincial government officials refer calls to the centre but provide no financial help. The Federal government has made a small student grant available annually. Generally, this represents six weeks of wages at the minimum salary with the remainder made up from the centre’s budget.
[Read more…]

Question from Denis in Saint-Clet, QC

The following questions and answers were first published in the Hudson/Saint-Lazare Gazette and are reprinted here with permission.

We have had a heron hunting for frogs in the drain in front of our place for the past few days. Last year we had a similar situation and unfortunately we eventually found the bird dead beside the road. What are my options should this bird need help?

In July and August young herons are busy leaving the nest and trying to make their own way in the world. In doing so, they face many trials, not the least of which is learning to hunt. So this is a very stressful time for these young birds. While in the nest young herons are fed fish by their devoted parents. You have to be devoted to barf up partially digested fish to youngsters armed with sharp beaks and a poor aim! But well fed they are and so much so that they are often heavier than their parents when they leave the nest.
[Read more…]