By Stephanie Keeler, Community Program Coordinator
Winter is a great time to get into birding, and Riverwood is a special spot for observing and feeding birds in Mississauga – but sometimes even well-intentioned interactions with wildlife can be harmful.
Birdwatching is a popular pastime that offers endless opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and learn about a diverse range of species and the places they live. Watching birds often requires distraction-free time outdoors, where you can rely on both your sight and hearing to identify species. Riverwood is home to approximately 180 species of birds with unique calls, songs, plumage colours, and behaviours. Despite being in the heart of a city like Mississauga, Riverwood offers a multitude of birdwatching habitats that support bird diversity, and that makes our park a sanctuary for new and experienced birdwatchers and photographers.
What makes winter a great time for birdwatching
You might not expect winter to be a fruitful season for birdwatching, but it is! During cold Canadian winters, many bird species instinctively migrate. That’s because during the winter, food resources like plants, seeds, berries, and insects are limited. Habitat loss due to urbanization has further reduced the availability of these essential resources for species that do not travel south.
In 2017, the Armstrong Wild Bird Trek was created at Riverwood to help these birds. The trek consists of 16 platform bird feeders placed along our park’s trails. Staff and volunteers from The Riverwood Conservancy care for our winter bird friends by regularly cleaning and filling feeders with a mix of healthy natural seeds that provide calories, fat, and protein. These feeders now attract a wide variety of species to the trailside, making them a great place to look for birds and observe them to learn about their behaviours, colours, and songs.
Through the winter, you can regularly observe “backyard” birds visiting our feeders: black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and northern cardinals.
What you shouldn’t offer to wild birds
The beautiful bird species at Riverwood often inspire people to care for them. Sometimes, however, our efforts to help end up doing more harm than good. Our staff often finds human or pet food placed in the bird feeders. Human food such as bread, noodles, and sugary snacks, or pet food like dog treats and pet bird seed, are unhealthy for wild birds and wildlife in general. It can lead to poor nutrition, spread disease, and create unnatural food-finding behaviours. Nocturnal animals like raccoons, opossums and rats are attracted to human food in the bird feeders and they end up frequenting the feeders in the daytime, which is also unhealthy for them.
One of the things that makes Riverwood so remarkable is that it offers plentiful food sources, naturally, to animals in the middle of the city. We understand the concern visitors have to supporting our wildlife, and we recognize intentions are good.
What you can offer to wild birds
If you would like to satisfy the hunger of wild birds at Riverwood, please add only a handful of food to the feeders, so there are no leftovers. Ensure the food you offer is specifically made for birds. We recommend:
Unsalted black oil sunflower seed
Best practices for hand feeding birds at Riverwood
One of the main draws here at Riverwood is the ability to have wild birds eat from your hand. It’s a wonderful experience that never gets old! But to keep the practice fun for you and safe for our birds, please follow these best practices:
The best food resource to carry with you and offer to the birds is black oil sunflower seeds. You can often find them in the bird food section of a hardware store, or at a local birding store.
Stand near a tree branch where the birds can perch – they like to get a closer look at you before deciding if you’re trustworthy.
Remove gloves or mitts – bird claws can get stuck in the fabric
Place a small amount of black oil sunflower seed on your flat palm
Stretch your hand out far away from your body
Be calm and quiet – birds won’t come to your hand if you’re moving the food about.
Watch your hand, not the trees, for incoming birds so you’re not surprised or scare the birds away
Allow the bird to pick over the seeds on your hand, and stay still and quiet
Wash or sanitize your hands when you’re done
Other birdwatching etiquette to keep in mind
Stay on designated trails
Leave nature where you find it – please don’t move branches or plants to get a better view
Only birds should be handfed, not other forms wildlife, including squirrels
Do not offer any human food to wildlife at Riverwood