Cedar waxwing [photo: Fiep-de-Bie]

To feed or not to feed

The Nature of PEI | Gary Schneider

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Every year with the approach of winter, I would normally stock up on a variety of bird food such as sunflower and niger seeds, peanuts and suet cakes. The feeders would be clean and ready to be placed around the deck, and I would look forward to seeing a wonderful array of winter birds. Common ones, including black-capped chickadees, blue jays, and American goldfinches, are like old friends returning after some time away. 

But it is always the less common visitors that spark the most excitement. The evening grosbeaks, cedar and Bohemian waxwings, even the sharp-shinned hawk looking for lunch, are special treats on a wintry day.

This year, though, my partner and I made the difficult decision to leave the feeders in the basement, perhaps for good. The reason is a variety of problems that are compromising the health of birds coming to feeders. The first is a particularly nasty one, an infectious disease called trichomonosis. It is spread by microscopic parasites (Trichomonas gallinae) and causes respiratory problems in a variety of birds, including purple finches and American goldfinches—two of our most common visitors.

The disease affects the esophagus and crop of birds, making it difficult for them to eat and resulting in starvation and dehydration. An infected bird spreads the parasite to seeds that are then ingested by other birds. Bird feeders concentrate the avian population, which then become susceptible to infections.

The Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative (CWHC) fact sheet on trichomonosis at cwhc-rcsf.ca/trichomonosis.php warns that while the disease won’t harm humans, it can be contracted by a variety of birds, including raptors that eat diseased prey.  

Two other diseases that can be problems at winter feeders have also been identified by the CWHC. Mycoplasmosis is caused by bacterium that infect the eyes and eyelids of songbirds, leading to death by starvation or predation. Salmonellosis is caused by bacteria in the Salmonella family.  Like trichomonosis, it affects the esophagus and crop and can be a killer.

And as if those weren’t enough, we’re still facing avian influenza, the disease that took such a toll on our Northern gannets, as well as infecting some American crows, common murres, Northern ravens, bald eagles, a snowy owl, a red-tailed hawk and even red foxes. While no cases have been reported in blue jays in PEI, two confirmed cases were reported in Nova Scotia.

Instead of feeders, I will continue to plant and promote a variety of native trees and shrubs that benefit wildlife throughout the year. The idea is to create excellent wildlife habitat that provides both food and protection. Our backyard already hosts a large and lovely native hawthorn, in addition to many other native species of trees and shrubs. While not a prime source of food, hawthorn fruits are eaten by waxwings, American robins, and other birds. But its main value lies in its ability to protect. The long thorns protect small birds from larger predators.

Other shrubs that are especially beneficial to wildlife in the winter include winterberry holly, American mountain ash, wild rose, and highbush cranberry. All benefit fruit-eating birds, including American robins, pine grosbeaks, and waxwings. In other seasons, the elders, serviceberry, beaked hazelnuts and other shrubs will be the star attractions.  

And I am going to take more outings to my favourite birding spots, such as East Point and Earnscliffe. There, I can see everything from rough-legged hawks and peregrine falcons to snow buntings and horned larks.

In troubled times, often the best you can do is to find imperfect solutions.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.