To Feed or Not to Feed the Birds

By Christine Harris
There are few things I enjoy more than waking up early on a crisp fall morning, making a cup of coffee and peering out the window at the avian activity going on around my many bird feeders.  I have everything a bird could want.  Multiple bird baths, thistle seed, black oil sunflower seed, suet cakes, sugar water; a variable bird-smorgasbord.  My present day fondness for feeding birds was spurred by memories I hold dear of growing up with active bird feeders in my yard and using my dad’s field guides to identify our winged visitors.  Today bird feeders have become an important link to the outside world for many city-dwellers and have been touted as having therapeutic benefits for nursing home residents.  We consider our own enjoyment of the birds, but is this activity really helping them as much as we might believe it to be?  The issue of whether or not to feed wild birds has long been a topic of controversy in ornithological circles.
How could feeding birds be a bad thing, you might ask?  One major concern is that backyard bird feeders are responsible for spreading disease among the birds visiting them.  Whether or not feeders contribute to the spread of avian diseases is a difficult call to make given that most bird species that visit feeders are still associating with other birds in flocks when feeding elsewhere, meaning they may be just as likely to encounter a diseased bird when feeding in another environment.  If you ever do see a bird that appears sick or injured it is best to immediately take down your feeders and wash them thoroughly. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, feeders should be washed with soapy water every two weeks and then soaked in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water, regardless of whether or not you have seen sick birds in the area.  Hummingbird feeders should be cleaned every time you refill the nectar which should be done every three to five days.
The quality of the seed you are supplying is also important to consider when using outdoor feeders.   Many people hope to save money by buying less expensive bird seed mixes only to discover that birds will bypass their feeders or discard the “filler” in these seeds in favor of a few specific seed types.  Overall black oil sunflower seed is the best bet for attracting a variety species with the same seed type.  This seed is ideal because it is high in fat, relatively small, and has a thin shell that most birds can crack with relative ease.  Any seed that you use should be kept in a sealed container to prevent it from becoming moldy.
What species are coming to your feeders? I am fortunate that I have never seen a house sparrow in my yard, but for many backyard birders this invasive species, or the equally problematic and invasive European starling, will completely dominate their feeders.  Providing a reliable source of food for these species will bring them to your yard in droves and is likely to keep native birds away.  If you find that the majority of the birds visiting your feeders belong to these species it may be best to consider taking them down.
 A frequently voiced concern from backyard bird watchers is that the presence of feeders will prevent birds from leaving when it is time for them to migrate.  Perhaps the most commonly held belief is that hummingbird feeders should be brought in in early fall to prevent the hummingbirds from sticking around and freezing to death.  Though these concerns seem logical, birds evolved their migratory patterns long before humans were feeding them and their migratory instincts are strongly tied to photoperiod (day length). Having seed available to them will not prevent birds from following their instincts.
Though the concerns over the benefit of backyard bird feeders are real, I know that I will continue to enjoy having feeders in my yard for many years to come.  So long as feeders are well-maintained and high quality seed is supplied to native species, bird feeders will always be a good thing in my book.
Photo by Christine Harris

5 thoughts on “To Feed or Not to Feed the Birds

  1. Christine, I agree with everything you have written and I too have had feeders for years. I can recall proudly installing a Shepherd’s hook and my own first feeder right in front of the living room window of the first house I rented in 1989. Now I have a variety of seed in 6-8 feeders, not counting hummingbird feeders, along with multiple birdbaths and fountains. It is a task for my husband and I to keep them all clean but the rewards are well worth it. As I type this, I need merely look up and admire chickadees, wrens, titmice, finches and more on the platform feeder just 4 feet in front of me on the other side of my home office window. I also have three bluebird boxes, one of which has been used by Carolina Chickadees for nesting the past two Springs (be still, my heart). Perhaps you will tell everyone the story of the Eastern Bluebird in one of your posts. Somehow I had never managed to see one of them until I was 28 years old but it was love at first sight! I’ve had bluebird boxes ever since. Really, all birds are so special. How could one not admire such gravity-defying physical feats? I look forward to more of your posts about these marvels!

    1. You seem to be even more of a feeder nut than I am! Bluebirds are also one of my favorites. I don’t have any bluebird boxes out because my yard isn’t the right habitat but I do have a screech owl box and we had a nesting pair that fledged two young this spring! So fun to watch.

      1. Awesome about the owls! We don’t have boxes but we have Barred owls in the area as I hear them frequently. Yes, I am a bird nut indeed. You should write about the Screech owl’s natural history and share your experience and photos. Raptors are so important to the ecosystem and I am fascinated by the adaptations of animals that hunt and are otherwise more active at night, including bats too!

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