This is the third of a four part series on our province’s most resilient animals. You can find out more about mammals that are active through the winter here or about mammals that are inactive but don’t hibernate here.
So far this winter, mammals have been all the talk, but we can’t forget about the other animals that brave the Alberta winter experience – like birds. If birds can fly south why wouldn’t they? We know that mammals are considerably less mobile and don’t have the option to fly south for the winter, but most birds could get some distance between themselves and the snow.
So why do some birds stay for winter?
Migrating takes a lot of energy, so is undertaken only by birds that can’t find food – insects and bugs – during the winter. The songbirds that stay for winter eat seeds, nuts and berries, all of which are available but not necessarily abundant. It is not uncommon to see some species gathering in large flocks at this time, such as bohemian waxwings descending on a berry-filled tree.
Feathers are great insulation; no doubt you’ve seen birds conserving heat by puffing up their feathers on a cold day.
Owls and hawks
Most owls remain for the winter, except the little burrowing owl. This endangered prairie species lives on the ground in burrows and dines mostly on insects, so is obviously not suited to winter conditions. Owls are have excellent night vision, which is helpful when there are so many hours of darkness and their acute hearing also gives them an advantage in locating small mammals moving around under the snow.
Hawks rely more on their vision, and for those species that hunt in the open for small mammals, it is too challenging to find prey so they head south for the winter. The hawks that spend their winters in Alberta, such as the goshawk, are primarily forest dwellers and regularly prey on birds, including grouse. For forest dwelling grouse species, winter offers a narrow selection of food, including seeds, berries, buds and conifer needles.
Other birds, including jays, magpies and ravens are resourceful, year round residents that eat a variety of food and have adapted to living around people and benefit from our garbage.
Why not help out your avian neighbours and put out a bird feeder this winter? You will be rewarded by hours of interesting bird watching and may even see some northern species that come south to Alberta for the winter, such as the common redpoll.
The good news is that our winter days are numbered as we slowly get closer to spring and seeing all of our bird species back in the province.