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Celebrate National Bird Day

Get The Facts:

Feeding Birds — a Q&A

By Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate

The act of feeding birds in your garden can be surprisingly contentious and controversial.

Much of what is reported is based on intuition, there being very little in the way of actual proof to back up a variety of concerns and assumptions. Furthermore, the act of providing food to attract birds to gardens, yards, parks or elsewhere varies enormously from place to place across the United States and Canada, and from time to time in the calendar year.

Here we will try to respond to many of the questions raised by the practice, cautioning that answers are themselves based on what relatively little is known — and what is assumed as most likely based on what is known.

Tufted titmouse
(Photograph by Maria Corcacas)

Q: If I feed the birds, won’t their numbers increase to the point where they cannot survive?

A: Generally this is unlikely. Putting bird seed or other food in the yard simply provides a source of food for the birds, if any, thus attracted. The question implies that in the absence of such food there would be significant starvation of birds. But in terms of species most often associated with garden feeding, such starvation is very rare. It has been theorized that starvation is most likely to be the result of extreme weather conditions, especially ice storms that literally can cover naturally occurring weed seeds and other food sources with ice, making them unavailable. Even then there seems to be little likelihood that feeding will do any more than make it easier for the birds to find food.

Q: If I feed the birds, won’t they become dependent on the food provided, and refuse to migrate?

A: It is true that some species of wintering finches may linger at bird feeders well into spring, but there seems to be no evidence that migration is thus impeded. Birds’ urge to migrate is not triggered by food sources or lack thereof, but by changes in the length of daylight as the year advances. Furthermore, seed-eating species tend to switch to insects as the latter become available. There is no shortage of “natural” food as we move into spring.

This does not mean that bird feeding does not influence bird populations. Most mourning doves, for example, used to migrate out of the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, each winter, to return in the spring, and in the more northern latitudes were rare in winter. Now they are among the most common wintering birds. Feeders may have contributed significantly to this change, but so might have the increased practice of planting large amounts of corn, often on land held for commercial speculation, corn being a favorite food of mourning doves.

Global warming is now probably contributing to the ability of the species to winter farther north than it did historically. Northern cardinals, a popular, non-migratory garden bird, also have moved farther north, into regions they did not historically inhabit, and red-bellied woodpeckers are doing so now. More and more western species of hummingbird are showing up in winter in the southeastern United States. All such chances and others reflect the fact that the environment itself continually changes, and the increase in the use of bird feeders are probably a contributing factor in many such changes.

Q: If I feed the birds, won’t they starve if, for any reason, I quit?

A: Many people have this concern, but we can find no evidence that it is valid and some evidence that it is not. However, as a precautionary approach we advise that if a winter feeding program is instigated, it not be abruptly ended mid-winter. If it has to be ended, we suggest phasing out the provision of food if, for any reason, one must quit feeding.

Q: Doesn’t the concentration of birds facilitate the spread of disease?

A: Yes, it certainly can, and this is a valid concern. Disease is relatively rare, but there is evidence that eye disease in house finches in eastern North America did spread to other species, and this could have happened when the other species came within close proximity of house finches at bird feeders. While the temptation might well be to provide food to diseased birds, we recommend phasing out feeding if such disease is reported. That said, the occurrence of contagious disease (including West Nile Virus) in feeder birds is the exception, not the rule.

Q: But what about birds getting sick from the food itself?

A: Birds are subject to certain fungal spores, which can occur in some seeds or other foods provided. But this risk is easily prevented by feeding dry, clean food and by keeping feeders clean, especially in warmer (above freezing) weather.

Q: Aren’t we setting the birds up for predation?

A: Garden bird feeding causes birds to concentrate, with relatively large numbers sometimes occurring in relatively small areas. The species involved are species who tend to form such flocks at any rate, with or without feeders, so it’s not entirely clear that wild predators are any more likely to catch such birds in garden settings than in more natural habitats.

Cats can be a very serious problem, although not all cats are equally adept at catching birds. But in order to succeed, cats need to pounce from cover, and providing seed and other food away from such cover should provide the birds with a good chance to escape. Obviously it is not kind to attract birds to dangerous situations, and if the danger cannot be mitigated or eliminated, then it is better not to feed the birds.

Q: What about bringing birds from the wild into urban areas, with all the risks that entails?

A: The biggest such risk is windows, particularly picture windows. This risk varies according to the circumstances, but put simply, the main problem is that windows reflect the environment, and in doing so, prevent birds from seeing the glass. They are focused on what their brains see as a distant object — perhaps a bush or branch or the distant sky — and don’t see the actual glass. By putting objects on the glass, or by blocking its reflectivity, one solves the problem.

Another problem is caused when birds can see through glass to habitat beyond, and again fail to focus on where the glass is, and so do not see it. Here is a complete discussion of this problem and solutions to it.

One obviously must avoid attracting birds to areas where there are such hazards as toxic waste, pesticide use, kids with bb guns and so on, but generally speaking the suburban landscape is not necessarily more hazardous than other environments where the birds are likely to seek food. And even the major risks, windows and cats, will normally account for a small mortality; the world, itself, is inherently filled with risks to birds wherever they occur.

Q: Is there a vegan alternative to suet?

A: Suet (lard) is among the most popular foods provided to wintering birds, particularly in colder climates. It is made from the fat of slaughtered livestock, with beef kidney suet being the best quality to feed birds. It can be melted and mixed with seeds and berries, and it is commercially sold in various forms for bird feeder use. It is good for small birds who habitually consume insect larvae from beneath the barks of trees, or glean fat from carrion, and these include woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches and titmice. These birds, especially in cold weather, have very rapid metabolisms, and burn a lot of energy. Fat is good for them.

But many of us would prefer for ethical and environmental reasons to use vegan (non-animal-origin) alternatives. These are available, and one can substitute such foods as peanut butter and vegetable shortening for suet, and also melt and mix them with seeds and berries or mould them into large holes in hanging logs. In fact, vegetable shortening is more easily spread than suet onto rough bark with a butter knife or spoon, and thus can provide a more “natural” feeding experience for the birds. There are also now sandwich spreads, similar to peanut butter, but made from almonds and other nuts, and these, too, are perfectly good, and perfectly healthy, for the birds, in cold weather.

Some concern has been expressed that all such foods can cause oily residue, or go rancid, but as long as the temperature is cold (near freezing or colder at night) there really is no problem and both suet and vegetable shortening have safely been used for garden birds that have lived normal lifespans.

Q: Where can i purchase sustainable bird feeders or houses?

In Born Free USA's online store!

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