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Why don’t woodpeckers get headaches?

Guest speaker at Innisfil Garden Club tells all about the lifestyles of the feathery and famous

A garden is an ecosystem — not just of plants but wildlife, insects and birds attracted by the flowers, shrubs and trees selected by gardeners.

So it’s not surprising that gardeners are often bird watchers, and that the Innisfil Garden Club invited Kirsten Martyn of Wild Birds Unlimited of Barrie to be their guest speaker at the July meeting.

Her topic? “Twenty things you may not know about your backyard birds,” Martyn said. “I hope you learn something. They really have interesting lives all on their own — their private lives!”

Martyn shared factoids like the information that Blue Jays are not really blue.

It is an optical illusion, a trick of their feathers’ reflective qualities. In dim light, they’re just grey.

Chickadees also have great memories. During the summer, they cache seeds in various locations, which they remember and find in winter.

And goldfinches, the last birds to build their nests in summer, are true herbivores.

“They even feed their babies plants,” said Martyn, while most birds opt for high-protein insects for their chicks.

As well, even though people talk of spotting the first robin of spring, said Martyn, “robins stay year-round.”

In winter, though, with the ground frozen and covered with snow, they eat berries instead of bugs and worms, and stay high in the trees.

Among the other things people may not know about birds, she said, is that not all bird seed is created equal.

“There are seeds that birds don’t eat,” Martyn warned.

Cheap bird seed can contain milo, red millet, cereal grains and oats, and white millet as filler — stuff that birds reject, and that will end up scattered on the ground.

Look for mixes high in black sunflower seed, safflower and peanuts, Martyn said.

Black sunflower is “the most universally loved seed,” with more protein, oil and fat than striped sunflower seeds. It is also easier for birds to open.

People should also not feed birds “people food,” Martyn said. “Bread is not a natural food in nature. They’ll eat it — it’s like candy,” but it is not healthy.

Some birds are also attracted to certain colours, she said.

An orange bird feeder will attract orioles, but hummingbirds prefer red.

“They learn nectar rewards based on the colour of plants. They learn that reds, pinks and blues mean better nectar rewards.”

Although birds have colour preferences, never add food dyes to bird food or sugar-water nectar because it can cause fungal infections, Martyn added.

And birds, except for vultures, have no sense of smell, she noted. “They have to find everything visually.”

There’s no “best time” to set out bird feeders, she said.

“Birds benefit from a reliable source of food year-round,” Martyn said, citing research that found bird feeders result in a larger, healthier bird population even when birds can fend for themselves. In winter, extra food is important: birds can lose up to 10 per cent of their body weight overnight on a cold winter evening, she said.

The one negative is the spread of disease, “but you can mitigate that by cleaning your feeders.”

In terms of biggest threats to birds, loss of habitat, cats and windows are the biggest culprits.

“If folks kept their cats indoors, our birds will be much better off,” said Martyn. “I’m not blaming the cats. Cats are built to hunt,” but the statistics suggest that three billion to four billion birds each year in North America fall prey to cats.

As for windows, “birds have no concept of windows. Birds don’t understand glass. It looks like whatever it’s reflecting.”

Adding UV-reflective decals and dots, ribbons and screens can cut down the death toll.

During her talk, Martyn even answered the question: Why don’t woodpeckers get headaches or concussions?

The answer is pure science, she said. Although woodpeckers can peck 20 times a second, up to 12,000 pecks a day, the small size and orientation of their brains, spongy bone struts in their skulls and absence of fluid surrounding the brain all provide protection from concussion.

“Birds are enjoyed by people of all ages. The love of birds is not something only for grandmothers,” Martyn concluded.

Bird watching has been found to lower blood pressure and improve mental health, and knowing a bit more about the birds that visit backyard feeders just adds to the enjoyment, she said.

The July 9 meeting of the Innisfil Garden Club at the Churchill Community Centre included a Summer Flower Show, with 75 entries submitted by 12 exhibitors.

Except for the floral arrangements, the entries were a little sparse due to the late spring, followed by recent heat and drought.

Best Sunlight and Shadow arrangement and Best in Show went to Mona Rea, who also won First and Judge’s Choice with her arrangement in the Wine and Roses category.

Victor Foster won Best Rose, and Jenni Murrell won Best Lily.

The Innisfil Garden Club takes a break in August and meets again in September.


Miriam King

About the Author: Miriam King

Miriam King is a journalist and photographer with Bradford Today, covering news and events in Bradford West Gwillimbury and Innisfil.
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