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Hand-feeding a redwing blackbird
Credit: ellenm1 on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Last winter was one of the harshest I've encountered living in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) of Canada. It was particularly hard on wildlife and winter birds.

In a February 12th, 2014 CBC online news report titled Birds struggle to survive in harsh Toronto winter, the Toronto Wildlife Centre's executive director Nathalie Karvonen mentioned that "staff were exhausted, working long hours every single day, and food bills were much higher than the centre's donations could cover."

Grebespeggycadigan on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Of great concern were waterfowl such as Grebes since they require an open water source to survive.

In fact, Grebes can't even walk on land. But for the first time in 20 years, Georgian Bay froze over completely - marking last winter as the worst the Toronto Wildlife Centre had seen in 21 years of operation.

In a March 17th, 2014 Toronto Star article by Laura Kane, Toronto Animal Services reported that calls about birds found dead in water or stuck in ice had increased 66 percent between January 1st and March 12th when compared to the same time frame last year. And wildlife admissions to the Toronto Wildlife Centre was up 50 percent.

Nathalie Karvonen explained, "A lot of the birds coming in were exclusively fish-eaters." So bird feed would be of no use to them. She added, "Some days we were spending over $400 on live fish alone - per day."

A February 12th, 2014 NASA Image of the Great Lakes

Taken on February 12th, 2014
Credit: Credit: NOAA/NASA GOES Project | NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Ducks Who Rely Only on Fish to Eat

I never realized the extent of how life-threatening our North American winters could be on waterfowl. On March 15th, 2014 CTV News published an associated press report by Mary Esch which confirmed the following:

In January 2014, the Great Lakes almost entirely froze over which prevented thousands of ducks from obtaining their main food source - minnows. Biologist Connie Adams at Buffalo's Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed that 2014 was unprecedented. She stated, "Biologists who've worked here for 35 years have never seen anything like this."

Biologist Joe Okoniewsk, who autopsied the dead birds confirmed that starvation was their primary cause of death. He even found some deceased ducks had stomachs and intestines that were full of feathers. He added, "They're desperate for anything to eat. It's really sad."

Red-breasted mergansers were the ducks most affected. And unlike black ducks or mallards, they will not eat bread or other food that people try to give them. Red-breasted mergansers will only eat live fish. I was astonished to learn that a merganser can consume between 200 to 250 fish in a day.

Wildlife technician Dawn Mazierskiat at the SPCA in Erie County explained that in order to save starving ducks, they need to be tube-fed a liquid diet three to four times a day. They rest in hammocks called loon beds. And once they are strong enough to eat on their own, they are put in water stocked with minnows. Thankfully, bait shops donate minnows to the SPCA.

Red-Breasted Merganser and Six Babies

Red-breasted Merganser | Scientific name: Mergus serrator
Credit: Stefan Berndtsson on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

A Hooded Merganser Release

Once fully recovered, he was released into Barnstable Harbor

How to Help Waterfowl

In Canada, if you see birds or other wildlife that may be struggling, sick, or orphaned this winter, please call your local wildlife rehabilitation centre for advice or assistance. You can find the appropriate contact by doing an online search or by looking in your phone book.

In the United States, you are directed to contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator if you come across stranded waterfowl. And if you discover dead waterfowl contact your local Department of Natural Resources Field Office or Centre of Operations.

According to Ducks Unlimited Canada, it is okay to pick up young birds or eggs to return them to a nest or move them away from danger. Duck parents won't abandon them (or the nest) but you don't want to disturb them for very long.

What if you find a duckling?

Mother ducks only feed their young a few times a day, so ducklings spend a great deal of time alone. However, here are a few scenarios where you can help:

1) Duckings with their mother 

Only move them if in danger (on a road) and escort them to the nearest source of water. If no water is nearby, put the ducklings in an open box, carry it on top of your head so that the mother can see her young and proceed to the nearest water source.

2) Five or more ducklings found without a mother

Get an open box and place a shallow pan of water in it. Put the ducking in the water and leave it in an open area that the mother duck can see. Leave it out for a maximum of 1 hour on a hot day or 2 hours on a cooler day. If no mother finds them, contact your local wildlife rehabilitation centre.

3) One to four ducklings found without a mother

If a parent or other siblings aren't found (and you can try the open box idea previously mentioned), put the ducklings in a box and contact your local wildlife rehabilitation centre.

Helping Other Types of Winter Birds that Eat Bird Feed

After reading numerous tips about how to feed winter birds (and based on my experience feeding birds), I found the advice by Greg Byron at Bird Canada to ring true.

In a January 16th, 2013 post titled What should you put out to feed birds during the winter? he shared the following tips:

Mixed Birdseed - Greg Byron avoids this since most winter birds (in Canada) won’t eat it. Instead, they peck out the black oil sunflower seed and kick out all of the other "filler" to the ground. I have found this to be true and the problem is that the stuff that falls on the ground attracts other animals (and predators). NOTE: I have found some "high energy winter" blends of wild bird seed that contain mostly black oil sunflower seeds and peanuts, though.

Black Oil Sunflower Seed - Stick to Black Oil versus the type people eat (grey and white striped sunflower seeds). Black Oil sunflower seeds attracts numerous types of winter birds such as: blue jays, cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, house finches, house sparrows, juncos, and woodpeckers.

Who's at the Bird Feeder? Black-capped chickadeeUSFWS Mountain-Prairie on flickr / Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Suet - This solid fat block (made of beef and/or venison fat) is often hung in a wire cage with seeds embedded in it. Chickadees, nuthatches, starlings, woodpeckers, and other types of birds love suet.

One thing I've discovered: traditional hanging cages allow big chunks of suet to fall through the wires (which gets covered by snow). I've feel it's best to use the type of suet feeder shown at right.

Nyger - This type of tiny black seed should be dispensed from a tube-style seed feeder as it is light. Goldfinches in particular love this type of bird seed.

Peanuts - Use a bird feeder designed just for peanuts. You'll find jays, nuthatches, and starlings love peanuts. (Of course, peanuts also attract other types of animals like squirrels, so look for a high quality squirrel-proof bird feeder. Some people even provide a separate area where they set out nuts just for the squirrels).

Winter Bird Feeding From Canadian Tire

Helpful tips about how to choose a location and type of bird feeder:

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