One question that comes up regularly during the winter is whether or not you should feed birds during the winter. Some say that you shouldn’t do it because in the long run it could hurt the birds that you are feeding. While others suggest that feeding the birds adds an extra source of food to get them through our cold winters, plus you get to look at all the beautiful birds feeding as a bonus. As with most things that we investigate the answer is more complicated and not really just black and white.
There have been several studies on this issue and unfortunately each study has led to no definitive answer to solve the problem.
“According to the United States Nature Conservancy, much of the current research suggests that putting out goodies for wild birds generally gives them a leg up on survival during frigid weather when food isn’t readily available. One Wisconsin study, for instance, found that black-capped chickadees with plenty of seeds from their human neighbo[u]rs showed a significantly elevated overwinter survival rate (69%) compared to those left to fend for themselves (37% survival rate).” However “one study in the United Kingdom, for example, found that blue tits (European kin to the black-capped chickadee) didn’t fare well after a winter diet of human-supplied fat balls (made from suet and seeds). Birds had lower breeding success in the spring, chicks weighed less, and they experienced lower survival rates than chicks whose parents scavenged for their own food. Another U.K. study revealed similar findings.” So let’s take a closer look at some of the potential problems and benefits.
One of the biggest potential problems facing birds at bird feeders is predators. When you hang a bird feeder it can become a spot that finds many birds feeding in the same space at the same time. If feeders are not hung up properly or are too low to the ground it can lead birds vulnerable to their greatest predator in the urban environment, the cat. An Environment Canada study estimated that 200 million birds could be saved by keeping cats indoors. Another predator that could benefit from a large grouping of birds is hawks. Hawks see these backyard feeding groupings and see it as an opportunity for a quick meal. As one article writes “While there’s no real evidence that wild bird populations are declining as a result of backyard predation, watching hawks swoop in for a bloody kill may not be the tranquil nature scene you signed up for when you first put out birdseed.” The article continues that “ the expanding popularity of backyard bird feeders is enticing more hawks to stay for the winter instead of migrating, possibly changing the balance of nature and leading to other unintended negative consequences.” So not only is it creating an easy meal for hawks but it may also be fundamentally changing the hawks migration patterns and way of life.
The changing of migration patterns is another potential issue that back yard bird feeders may present. As Erin Bayne, a professor in the Facility of Science for the University of Alberta mentions:
“With milder winters, we may create a situation where birds no longer choose to migrate if we feed them. In Regina, for example, mallard ducks are staying year-round on the lakes where people are feeding them. We are fundamentally changing the biology of that creature. Are we playing with the system by providing the food? It’s debatable as to whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, since there’s not a lot of science to back it up at this point, he said.”
So backyard bird feeders may have the potential to change the biological makeup of birds by changing their migration patterns and reliance on us to provide a quick meal.
A third potential problem with backyard bird feeders has to do with the feeders themselves. One of these issues is bird feeder placement. We like to place bird feeders in areas that we can see from our windows. After all, who doesn’t like looking out the window and seeing birds happily eating the beautiful seed we left for them. Unfortunately this can lead to serious issues. “Muhlenberg College ornithologist Daniel Klem has found that deadly bird strikes are most common when feeders are 15 to 30 feet from windows. Even feeders as close as three feet away can result in occasional window collision deaths.” Additionally as Bayne’s study found “An estimated 957,000 birds die each year in Alberta alone from mistakenly crashing into glass.” The reason for this is as Bayne points out is “It’s popular to hang feeders by a window for good viewing, but if birds can see through a house from front to back, they mistake it for a natural pathway to fly through, sometimes resulting in collisions with the window.” Outside of just the risk of window collision there are other environmental factors such as weather and potential shelter from environments that need to be considered in placement as well.
Another of these feeder issues has to do with the potential for disease. Some studies have shown that “multiple bird species crowding together unnaturally at feeders boosts their chances of contracting parasites and diseases”. Additionally if a bird is sick and it lands on a feeder “an infected bird can drop saliva that can spread infection, or food can get mouldy and mildewed” said Bayne in their study. So you also need to clean the bird feeders frequently to reduce any potential risk or harm to the birds.
So with these potential issues it seems that it is probably better to not feed the birds, right. But not so fast as there are some real potential benefits to our feathery friends as well.
The biggest potential benefits for birds with backyard bird feeders is pretty straight forward. It is that backyard bird feeders provide an additional/supplemental food source for birds in harsh times. During winter and early spring food sources become limited and so providing a food source can help birds conserve energy by having a backup food source close by. There are numerous studies that have shown wild birds that have access to supplemental food sources tend to fare better than birds that don’t, especially in winter. Not only that but depending on what food sources you supply for the birds it can provide important sources of fat that birds need for survival. This is because the fat helps birds be able to move more and thus stay warmer.
Another major benefit for keeping the birds around outside of their own survival is the benefits that birds supply to our gardens and nature.
“There are numerous documented benefits for many bird species, and there are also benefits for humans who feed them. These include insect control, flower pollination and weed control around the yard, as well as the chance to get up close and personal with nature (maybe even take some great photos). The joy that comes from connecting with wild creatures can even turn into a passion for environmental conservation and advocacy. Inspire enough people to act through backyard birding, and it may result in better protection for the planet.”
For us as a Nature School we understand the importance of having our students see and watch birds in nature to create a deeper tie to nature. For example, as macabre as it might seem, we actually witnessed a scene where a Blue Jay attacked a chickadee nest that was on our porch. While the Blue Jay caused lots of damage it provided an interesting learning angle that students might not have ever seen or known about.
One article points out that the National Audubon Society suggests asking three questions when it comes to feeding birds with a backyard feeder:
- Is a particular bird species at risk? As counterintuitive as it might seem, if you find that a particular bird is threatened, endangered or otherwise struggling, it’s best to forgo offering food. You don’t want to further threaten the species by inadvertently introducing disease or inflicting other unintentional harm.
- Is the food appropriate and safely provided? If you’re going to feed birds, it’s important to offer them the healthiest food in the safest, most sanitary way possible. If you don’t have the time and commitment to do it right, bird feeding probably isn’t a good idea.
- Will feeding change birds’ behaviour? Are your feeders enticing birds to migrate to an area where they’re not well known or may be hunted? Might they become habituated to humans, increasing their risk of danger or encouraging them to aggressively approach people for handouts (think seagulls)? If so, it’s probably best not to feed them.
The same article then also states that if you do plan to use a backyard bird feeder follow these simple steps to make it the healthiest and safest experience for the birds:
- Have more than one feeder and put them at varying levels to avoid crowding and lessen the likelihood of disease. Different bird species prefer eating at different heights, which should decrease the number of unhealthy interspecies interactions.
- Fill each feeder with high-quality birdseed and invest in the right feeders for specific seed types. That’s because each bird species has its favourite foods and favourite ways of eating. This helps keep species separate so they stay healthy and thrive. Here’s a guide to which seeds and feeder types are best for attracting specific birds. Learn more about the healthiest and worst foods for birds here. If your time is limited but you still want to help birds around your home, consider planting native shrubs and trees in your yard that are known avian favourites, such as elderberry, sassafras, American mountain ash and coneflower.
- Scrub feeders at least twice a year using dish detergent, then soak in a 10% non-chlorine bleach solution to remove harmful, disease-causing bacteria. Let them dry in the sun. Also regularly rake up uneaten seeds and other debris beneath feeders that can get soggy and spoil or sprout dangerous mould — none of which is good for birds.
- Place bird feeders where birds will be safe from windows and traffic. Put feeders less than three feet from windows or even suction cup them to the glass to lessen the chance of bird strikes. It will give you a better view, too. Also place visual warnings like decals or netting on windows to deter birds from flying into them. Feeders that are too big to hang near windows should be placed 30 feet away or farther. Also make sure feeders aren’t near streets or roads where birds may collide with vehicles.
- Create cover by surrounding bird feeders with native trees and shrubs to avoid turning your feathered friends into sitting ducks for predators. This partially hides feeders and gives birds a place to dart when threatened. Make sure shrubs aren’t so close that predators can hide in them within striking distance. Tarps and umbrellas also work as cover. Don’t offer birds food on the ground, which makes them even easier prey. And, by all means, keep cats indoors.
Home and Garden also suggested a number of different things to think about in regards to backyard bird feeder as well. One of these is to also make sure that you provide birds with a bird bath. Water is one of the hardest resources for birds to find so providing a bird bath (especially a heated bird bath) can greatly help birds regardless of whether you provide food. Their article also suggested that if you don’t want to put bird seed out for birds try adding plant species that naturally provide food for the birds into your backyard garden as this will allow places for birds to eat and take shelter naturally. Some winter plants that the article suggests are Beautyberry, Holly, Winterberry, Black chokeberry, Arborvitae, Common hackberry, Crab apples, Service-berry, Virginia creeper, and Viburnums.
In the end more research needs to be done on the impact that providing or not providing food to birds has on the bird population and so following the tips to a healthier and safer experience for birds tied with more research will help you decide what is best for you.