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How our feathered friends manage in the extreme weather

Pelican’s winter menu

This winter the extreme cold and heavy snow has only been enjoyed by children. Of course, they don’t need to dig out cars covered with snow, rush to get to work, wishing for the warmth at home, while children are sliding down the hill with pleasure. Are our forest dwellers as active on a cold winter’s day we wonder? Do they have enough food and the energy to find it? We asked Alexander Vinchevsky, Director of the APB BirdLife Belarus Public Association, how our feathered friends manage in the extreme weather.

Even pelicans have changed their migration pattern

The greatest problem for overwintering birds during this time of the year is foraging. If they can find enough food, they will have enough energy to live through the hard frosts. The Dalmatian pelican spotted in the Mogilev Region, is not afraid of frosts. This species differs from others as is has the ability to sustain low temperatures. Why do you think birds fly south? Not because of the warmth as many people think, but mainly because the daylight hours there are longer. While in our country in the winter, birds do not have time to find enough food during the short daylight hours.

Ornithologists are especially keen this year to give recommendations on feeding birds. This is the first time I recall being asked to help birds in this way. What is the reason for that?

We recommend only feeding small perching birds which, because of the deep snow, cannot find food. Sunflower or pumpkin seeds will be suitable for them. Both bluetits and woodpeckers enjoy unsalted suet. Sparrows, greenfinches, and finches like nuts.

Waterfowl, however, do not need a great deal of attention. They are capable of changing their habitat to find food. When birds are fed by humans they may lose this desire to follow food sources and remain in the same place to their detriment. In the autumn, we campaign for people not to feed the birds, especially in areas where the water freezes. Nevertheless, annually, in Minsk alone, about 5 thousand birds remain for overwintering, this year being no exception. Ornithologists have counted similar numbers on the Svisloch and Komsomolskoe lakes, the Tsnyanskoye basin and the Krinitsa basin. Among them seagulls, wild ducks, swans and goldeneye.

Do you think city birds are more comfortable in the winter than their forest relatives?

I wouldn’t say so necessarily. There is a chance that people may take care of them, but it doesn’t always happen. City birds, as a rule, forage on the ground which is not ideal when there is heavy snow. Goldfinches and greenfinches which eat seeds from tall weeds (if people don’t remove them) fare much better. The main thing, of course, is that there is no ice for them.

Each winter offers different challenges. Last winter was warm with little snow. While currently it’s the exact opposite. What is the optimum winter for our feathered friends?

Alas, there is no one type of perfect weather for all birds. The birds we see in Belarus represent northern, southern, western and eastern regions. This means that each bird is adapted to its own weather. For southern birds it is better that there is no snow at all, as they search for food on the ground or in open reservoirs. For the northern varieties, such as willow grouse, the more snow the better. Having white winter plumage, they are exposed to predators if there is no snow to afford camouflage.

The north of our country attracts fewer birds, as it is cold. Polesie and the Brest and Grodno regions are more attractive owing to their warmer climates.

The effects of climate change mean that more and more southern birds remain in our country for the winter, where they previously flew to Western Europe and Africa. Sandpipers, egrets, wrens, warblers and wagtails that eat insects, now feel more comfortable in our country. Many of them remained until New Year. While northern species, such as willow grouse, are disappearing. Just a hundred years ago this bird lived in Polesie, now the species can only be seen on two or three bogs in the Vitebsk Region.

Apart from the Dalmatian pelican, what other atypical new species, have ornithologists observed recently?

Besides the pelican, four new species have appeared in Belarus in the last two years. Before that we saw the pink-footed goose, yellow-browed warbler (Siberian species) and American wigeon.

By Veronika Artemieva
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