Backyard feeding of wild birds has long been an activity embraced by Canadians.
In fact, 8.4 million Canadian households (61.5 per cent) buy wild bird feed, according to a new book Backyard Bird Feeding: A Saskatchewan Guide. It also notes Canadians are 1.8 times more likely to regularly buy wild bird feed than Americans.
Authors Trevor Herriot and Myrna Pearman suggest feeding wild birds is simply a good thing to do.
“To feed birds in a mild-continental temperate place like Saskatchewan is to reach out a hand toward the untamed dramas outside our windows, where the short intense lives of wild creatures play out in all weathers,” they write in the introduction.
The past year, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, the hobby has garnered extra interest.
“In the dark days of winter, and especially this year when most of us find ourselves at home, people are more than ever taking solace and inspiration from birds and doing all they can to attract them within. Chickadee, nuthatch, and woodpecker: they arrive on their own schedules, each a kind of gift, and we reciprocate by feeding them. It is one interchange with the world that feels right, that is neither extractive nor exploitive,” they continue in the introduction.
It’s not a new activity either.
“For thousands of years before Richardson travelled through what is now central and northern Saskatchewan, and then wrote those words about the Canada Jay (“Whisky Jack” is an anglicized form of the Cree name for the species, Wiskicahk)) hunting people in this part of the world were living with birds as part of their daily round. People have always fed birds, or rather, birds long ago found ways to get people to share their food. Jays, chickadees, magpies and ravens gathering at a hunter’s kill; pigeons and starlings in Europe and Asia feeding on grain – incidental bird feedings has a long history.”
But, why the book at this time?
“The book was Myrna Pearman's idea -- she had written a similar book for Alberta and suggested we do one together for Saskatchewan,” explained Herriot who has always lived in Saskatchewan, all over the prairie as a kid but mostly in the Aspen Parkland region. “That was a couple of years ago, but when the pandemic forced people to stay home and they started to notice the birds, some for the first time, we knew it was the right time to do it.”
Finally, the book became a reality added Herriot who noted his “fondest memories are of living in Tantallon in the Eastern Qu'Appelle Valley and in Esterhazy.” He said the book had a simple enough reason for finally being written.
“We hope that, by connecting people to the birds in their neighbourhood, farms and gardens, this book will in a small way contribute to the work of transforming the way humanity regards and values the wild creatures with whom we share the earth,” he said, quoting for the book’s introduction.
Herriot, who has authored a number of books – having spoke in Yorkton on the release of some of those, noted “the craft of writing books, you learn by reading and imitating the kinds of writing you love. For me it has been mostly American authors, from Henry David Thoreau to Aldo Leopold, Wallace Stegner, Barry Lopez, and Peter Matthiessen.”
But working with a co-author is an experience of its own.
“When you work on a book together as Myrna and I did, it is a lot of going back and forth on email, after having decided who would do what,” said Herriot. “As well as being an excellent writer and photographer, Myrna is a very congenial, pleasant person to work with so it was not difficult in the least.
“And it helps that she is far and away the expert on the topic of backyard birdfeeding. If there was any question of content or decisions to make on this or that aspect of bird feeding, I simply deferred to Myrna. I do not know anyone anywhere who knows more about how to attract birds to your yard and living space.”
With Pearman providing expertise the book came together rather smoothly, note Herriot.
“This was not a difficult book to write, mostly because I had Myrna and her knowledge to lean on, but I would say the part I liked least was the proof-reading and copy-editing,” he said. “I am really bad at it and tend to miss a lot of things or be a bit too careless.”
But, what then is the best part of the book.
“I think the best part of the book -- other than the writing and the wealth of knowledge from Canada's top wild bird-feeding expert, Myrna Pearman -- is the outstanding selection of photos it includes,” offered Herriot. “The photo editor (my daughter Maia) and I chose the final 331 images from more than 850 submissions that came in from 66 of Saskatchewan and Alberta's finest bird photographers. We could not be more pleased with the quality of photos in the book.”
The photos include several from Yorkton’s Morley Maier.
So the co-authors like what they created.
“I think Myrna and I are very proud of the book, and we are grateful to have the chance to work with Nature Saskatchewan, one of the province's most important conservation organizations, which of course traces its origins to Yorkton and Isabel Priestly,” said Herriot.
Yorkton actually figures prominently in terms of Saskatchewan and birds. The book notes prior to the 1930s several community-based groups had formed around nature and birding.
“What all these clubs needed was a publication to bring them together. That publication came in the 1940s when an upstart club in Yorkton began mimeographing “The Blue Jay, Official Bulletin of the Yorkton Natural History Society.” The Fall 1945 issue contained the following tips on feeding birds: “A most satisfactory ‘bird cake’ can be made by mixing weed seeds gathered at the threshing machine, with melted suet. When hard, it can be broken into pieces and tied with string to the trees or clothes’ line,” details the book.
The legacy continues “... Nature Saskatchewan and its many affiliates around the province continue to foster an interest in birds and bird conservation today. Blue Jay keeps members and the general public informed of emerging issues, interesting observations, and the latest science, while Nature Saskatchewan’s publishing arm produces important books, including Birds of Saskatchewan, an exhaustive 768-page compendium covering 437 species of birds.”
The book is also dedicated to the late Mary Houston who taught for three years at the former Yorkton Collegiate Institute spending about 12 years in the city and marrying Stuart Houston during that time, were historians, authors and researchers.
“She supported Nature Saskatchewan throughout her adult life and wrote many articles for Blue Jay, including three decades of reports on the province’s Christmas Bird Counts published in every March issue,” notes the dedication.
Houston also organized and monitored “a 322-kilometre (200 mile) long bluebird nestbox trail from the late 1960s to 2005, she banded 8,000 bluebirds and more than 18,000 tree swallows.” “The Bluebird trail was started by the Brandon Junior Naturalists in 1959 (or 1961) and extended through to Broadview,” explained Herriot.
“Lorne Scott started up in 1963 to connect from Indian Head to Broadview, and west to about Raymore. The Houston’s started their 200 km section out of Saskatoon in 1968, and connected at Raymore.”
As for the book, it has a rather large potential audience.
“Myrna and I wrote the book for people on farms and in towns and cities -- both those who have always loved the birds and the thousands who, living under the pandemic restrictions, have just begun to notice them passing through their yards and farm sites,” said Herriot.
“We are hoping that the tips and advice in the book will help them not only attract birds but identify them as well, because it includes a section with accounts of the 72 species that are most likely to show up at feeders in the province.”
The book is available directly through the publisher Nature Saskatchewan for $19.99 (online store: https://www.naturesask.ca/store/en/publications/backyard-birdfeeding-a-saskatchewan-guide) and at the following outlets: Turning the Tide books, McNally Robinson Booksellers, Wild Birds Unlimited and Early Farm and Garden in Saskatoon, The Penny University (bookstore) in Regina, DDK Pets in Moose Jaw, and Pharmasave in Esterhazy.