Wildlife Watch: Backyard Bird Feeding—Facts and Fallacies

Posted by on November 23, 2012 at 7:00 am

by Mike Pratt, Director of Wildlife Services, West Sound Wildlife Shelter, November 23, 2012, 7 a.m.

According to a recent Census Report, over 65 million Americans have tried backyard bird feeding, making it our second fastest-growing hobby next to gardening. Americans spend more than $3 billion a year on bird food and over $300 million a year on bird feeders, bird baths, bird houses, and other bird feeding accessories.

Backyard bird feeding is a great way to enjoy wildlife. Birds are the one wild animal you will see no matter where you travel around the world. What you learn at the feeder can be carried into conversations everywhere you go. Watching birds is an entertaining, educational, stress-reducing activity that brings us closer to nature. And it requires no technical skills.

Americans who enjoy feeding birds are also contributing information that allows scientists to better understand infectious outbreaks and other issues affecting North American bird populations. The educational role of these bird feeding “citizen scientists” has prompted the support of the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. Major research projects have engaged the general public in the process of studying daily, seasonal, and annual fluctuations in bird numbers.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak

For over 25 years, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has conducted Project FeederWatch, in which over 200,000 people contribute to its citizen-science projects. Scientists use the immense amount of data generated by all of these backyard bird watchers to determine how birds are affected by climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and disease. According to Dr. Erica Dunn, founder of Project FeederWatch and one of North America’s leading experts on bird population biology explains, “Bird feeding is not having a broad-scale negative impact on bird populations. . . Bird feeding does not cause mortality to rise above natural levels through exposing birds to unusual danger from window collisions, disease, or predation.”

Below are some common misconceptions and clarifying facts about backyard bird feeding.

Misconception: Once you start feeding in the winter months you cannot stop.

Fact: Do not worry if you cannot maintain a consistent feeding schedule. Birds are used to having food sources disappear and do not rely entirely on one food source. Their natural curiosity and mobility ensure their success by exposing them to multiple food sources. During winter periods of extended ice or snow cover or a harsh storm, your feeder may be a temporary lifesaving food source and a valuable contribution to the birds’ survival. But it is not a source of lasting dependency. No research indicates that birds will starve if feeding is stopped for a time during normal winter weather.

Misconception: Feeding birds in the summer months makes them dependent on backyard feeders.

Fact: Feeding birds throughout the summer will not make them lazy or dependent on feeders. There is no reason to stop feeding in the summer months. You can do it year-round. 

Misconception: Backyard feeders create populations of dependent wintering birds, increase the numbers of nest predators, and alter bird migration patterns.

Fact: National Audubon Society studies suggest these assertions to be false.

Misconception: Bird feeders lure birds close to houses, where they fly into windows.

Fact: Although some feeder birds do hit windows, the vast majority of window-killed birds (estimated at anywhere from 98 million to nearly a billion birds a year) are nocturnal migrants flying into lighted city buildings, especially high rises. Feeders are not causing birds to hit windows. Birds hit windows at homes because they see their reflection in the window and believe it is an intruder into their territory. Hanging a wind sock outside the window can help minimize window strikes.

Sparrow on perch

Sparrow on perch

Misconception: Feeders attract hawks and other birds of prey that reduce songbird populations.

Fact: The crowds of birds at a feeder actually help protect songbirds because there are so many eyes keeping watch for predators. Studies also suggest that hawks are not likely to settle into a routine when it comes to hunting. Focusing on one feeder location would quickly result in reduction of their prey base. Birds that are captured at a feeder are often the unhealthy and weak ones. According to David Bonter, of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, studies show that “birds with access to a reliable supply of food carry less fat, so they end up being more agile and less susceptible to predation.”

Misconception: Bird seed on the ground attracts unwanted wild mammals.

Fact: While this may be true is some cases, raccoons, skunks, squirrels, and bears also are attracted to our gardens, backyard berries and fruit trees, garbage cans, compost piles, and town dumps. Rats can be seen in alleys where there are no bird feeders. The prevalence of mammals is more due to humans encroaching on their natural habitat and eliminating their natural sources of food than to bird feeders. If you don’t want your feeders to attract animals other than birds, there are ones on the market that are designed to discourage squirrels and other mammals.

Misconception: Winter feeders cause increased clutches in the spring nesting season.

Fact: It is known that feeding birds during the winter boosts their survival. One Northern Ireland study in 2007 by Gillian Robb, Dr. Stuart Bearhop, and Dr. Dan Chamberlain addressed this question. The study showed that birds given extra food laid their eggs earlier and, although the same number of chicks hatched, had (on average) one more baby per clutch that fledged successfully. More research is needed to determine what, if any, affect this has on other bird species.

Baby Robin

Baby Robin

Misconception: Diseases spread primarily through infected feeders.

Fact: Bird diseases occur in natural populations of birds that never visit feeders as well as, occasionally, in feeder birds. All animal populations are controlled to some extent by disease. However, it is strongly recommended that you keep feeders clean and close down feeding stations for a few weeks if a disease does occur. Details of bird illnesses are available in bird feeding books. Bird feces under feeders sometimes contain parasites and bacteria that infect ground-feeding birds. Minimize falling seed as well as you can and rake up seed that’s left lying on the ground. Spilled seed can become moldy and cause illness. Local bird stores sell feeders that prevent this problem. In 2000, New York State performed necropsies on over 4,000 birds found in backyards and other places. The result showed that 48% of them had died directly or indirectly from pesticides.

Misconception: Bird feeders encourage the rapid growth of animal populations.

Fact: There is no documented study indicating that bird feeding has encouraged the rapid growth of any animal population.

Misconception: House cats treat feeders as fast-food restaurants.

Fact: A 1992 study by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology of bird deaths found that cats accounted for 36% of bird deaths—but the study included areas with and without feeders.

There are many great books available on backyard bird feeding, and an excellent online resource on the subject is the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service website.

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Lead photo features a sparrow. Photos courtesy of Dottie Tison.

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Categorized | Animals, Wildlife Watch

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