Blog #103: Enjoy - and help - our Winter Birds!

January 19, 2023
Monika Weber-Fahr
And don’t forget to feed your birds…!, the lady in the gardening shop had told me in November as I left her store, equipped with some practical things for my terrace. Feed the birds - really? I had thought to myself, somewhat irritated. Was this not interfering with nature? My doubts must have shown on my face. It’s good for your garden…!” she added, “if the birds like your garden, in spring and summer they’ll eat 80 percent of the pests that may otherwise stop your flowers and veggies from growing. Great advice, but time took over and, as often happens, I forgot. I remembered her only two weeks ago - when I heard the calls in the Austrian radio for anyone with a little bit of time and motivation to Help Count Our Birds.   
The winter-time counting of birds - between January 6 and January 8 - is a big citizen science effort specific to Austria and Germany, orchestrated by birdlife Austria together with BluehendesOesterreich in the former and by Nabu and in the latter. In Austria, it takes place already for the 14th time, and from what I could gather over 23,000 people participated this year. You can check out the results yourself online; I found it rather interesting to scroll through what’s going in birds’ lives across different parts of Austria. Overall, it seems that the warm temperatures during the counting period affected how many birds showed up in everyone’s garden: Fewer of the feathered friends were spotted than last year, mostly - the experts say -  because they found good feeding opportunities elsewhere in nature. The most frequently spotted bird, by the way were Sparrow, Great Tit, and Tree Sparrow.
Foto: You can check the results from last week's Austrian bird counting effort online and see which birds were spotted in the areas near you - quite fun, and also helpful in figuring out which birds you may see when you decide to help them by offering food throughout the cold winter months.  
But counting is not all we would want to do for these most beautiful of little creatures. Winter is coming, finally, and they will be looking for food that nature is not giving them anymore as she should. If we pay attention, we will see our feathery friends looking for nourishment - and can offer some, in our gardens, on the balcony, or simply on the window sill. So last week, I decided to set up a Bird Feeder in our garden. And I discovered that, like most things, also feeding birds is not that simple. Firstly, not all Bird Feeders are equally great - one should pick (or build) a model that allows the birds to keep the food separate from the poop (of others). Actually buying a Bird Feeder was the next hurdle: I could not find the nice little corner store for bird equipment that I had dreamed of - they probably exist, but my research ended up leading me to an OBI market (there is one in St. Marx, reachable with the U3). OBI only has limited options for the Feeding Silos that are most highly recommended, so I purchased a little wooden Bird House-type feeder and only a small Silo. Later I found better options are available at the Lagerhaus markets - the S7 stops right in front of their Schwechat outlet: That’s for next time.
What bird food to buy? Apparently, one can do all sorts of things wrongly - but the main advice is: Look out for Ambrosia/Ragweed feeds. Ambrosia is a Northamerican invasive plant that causes problems for people with allergies, a good reason for European organizations to try limiting its spread through bird feed. Therefore, most bird feed will have signs saying Ambrosia kontrolliert - but only those with a sign that says Ambrosia frei will actually be (mostly) free of the unwanted seeds. At OBI’s I could not find any of those - and I ended up buying the wrong one, I think. Next time, I’ll check out some of the online options for Ambrosia-free feeds. Also, a tip from the lady in the garden store: Be aware of bird food containing Hirse (millet) - you might not want to find it all over your garden once spring and summer come.
Last Saturday then, I installed my Bird Feeders - everything is ready for the cold and the birds to come. What about your garden, balcony or windowsill? Want to join in the effort of making winter a bit easier for our bids? I can confirm: Feeding birds is not just something you may enjoy because it puts you in touch with these lovely little animals - it also seems indeed to be a service to nature: Since our civilization is steadily shrinking the habitats that normally would feed our birds, providing additional food throughout the winter helps maintain and sometimes even increase bird population and health, both for domestic birds and for migratory birds. In fact, the Natural History Museum here in Vienna just last month put out a new exhibition - “The Grand Bouffe ..”  explaining why and where birds in Austria struggle to find the food they need. Worthwhile checking out!
And if you want to take things further and also contribute to bird counting: There are global citizen science efforts to support birds at different times throughout the year  everywhere around the world - orchestrated by The next bird counting exercise in Austria will be in May - from May 12 to 14. I’ll remind you ;-).
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