photo by Martha Allen

by Marissa L. Tomasic

Backyard bird feeding is a hugely popular pastime, with 55 million Americans partaking in the hobby annually. Particularly in the winter, we have many regular customers stopping by to pick up their bird seed & suet, which makes one wonder: is feeding birds good for wild bird populations? There is no definitive answer to that broad question. Surprisingly, there hasn't been enough conclusive study results to fully determine what kind of impact feeding has on birds. In some studies, birds who were given supplemental food supplies had increased numbers of offspring in the season following. In other studies, birds produced offspring earlier after getting supplemental food in winter, resulting in the young being hatched in a season where weather and foraging conditions hindered their survival. So without a full understanding of how our lives as modern humans impacts wild animal habitats and behavior, what is the reason people feed birds in their yards? It's because of the beauty birds bring to our lives and homes when they gather at our feeders. It's the wonder of watching them interact with each other and with us. It's the sense of satisfaction that we feel when we can help our feathered friends to survive the long, barren winter. Simply, it's our love of nature that urges us to observe and get involved with it's plants and animals, and this relationship should be nurtured. If you have been feeding birds for years, or if you are thinking of starting, learning good feeding practices will ensure that you are providing help and not harm.

There is a common sensibility that when humans feed wildlife, it causes wild animals to become dependent on these artificial feeding sources thereby reducing their ability to forage for natural food sources. Regarding wild birds, this is untrue. Studies have revealed that the bulk of a bird's diet consists mostly of foods from natural sources even when supplemental food is available. Therefore, it isn't necessary to provide food year round. The times when birds benefit most from supplemental feeding is when they need extra energy: during extreme cold, before and after migration, in late winter when natural food sources are depleted, and in early spring when females are tending to their young. If you wish to feed in summer, your focus should be on nectar for hummingbirds and nyjer seed for finches who are in active migration during late summer.

Seeds, nuts, fruit and suet are the mainstays of bird food. Which one you select will dictate which types of birds your feeder will attract. Black oil sunflower seeds attract the widest variety of birds, including chickadees, titmice, cardinals, and finches. Millet is an inexpensive seed that is preferred by ground-feeders like sparrows and doves. Nyjer seed is preferred by finches, and requires special feeders to contain the tiny seed. Beef suet is a favorite of nuthatches and woodpeckers, and can be bought from a butcher or purchased in convenient cakes containing seeds and nuts. You can put kitchen scraps outside for birds, but be aware that all kinds of animals will appear if you start throwing beef fat in your yard. Cut up fruit (fresh or dried), any fat that is solid at room temperature, and starches like potato, rice or corn make great bird feed - just be sure to put the scraps on an elevated feeder to reduce the amount of predators that these foods attract. Bread crumbs are suitable for some birds but harmful to others, so we recommend against feeding bread to birds. Never put out food that is rotted or moldy.

Choosing the right feeder depends somewhat on which type of feed you select. Whichever feeder you choose, it should be sturdy, easy to clean and refill, and have no sharp edges that could hurt birds.

Feeders should be shielded from wet weather, as wet seed tends to mold quickly. There are some considerations to make when deciding where to place your feeder. They should be placed above the ground where predators can not easily strike. Try and place them near (about twelve feet) from an evergreen tree, shrub or a brush pile; this way birds can quickly fly to safety when they need to take cover. Avoid placing feeders near windows where birds may see a flight path in the window's reflection. Place them either 30 feet away or less than 3 feet from any window: far placement will give birds enough space to steer clear of windows, and close placement will ensure their flight momentum won't be enough to injure the bird if they do fly towards a window. If you have several feeders, give plenty of space for each station to avoid overcrowding, which can increase the spread of disease.

It is absolutely imperative that you keep your feeders clean. Molds and bacteria can make birds ill and be a source for spreading disease. Diseased birds are more likely to die of starvation, dehydration, predation or severe weather, so make sure you are helping to limit the spread of parasites and disease. Every other week, or more often during heavy feeding times, empty feeders and discard old seed. Rinse with hot water, scrub any debris from surfaces and dry feeders completely before filling them with seed again. Once or twice monthly, rinse feeders in a 1:10 bleach solution (one part bleach to ten parts water) to eliminate any pathogens. Rinse thoroughly with hot water and dry the feeder before refilling it. Rake up any seed or seed hulls or shells from the ground beneath feeders. Pathogens can survive in old food for up to a week. Nectar feeders for hummingbirds and oriels should be cleaned and refilled every three to five days to prevent molding or deadly fermentation. If you have birdbaths, put fresh water in them every day, and scrub them once a week.

Feeding birds can be a rewarding and educational practice, and doing it properly can ensure you are helping and not harming wildlife. Ultimately, it's our intrinsic ties to the nature that continually drives us to narrow the gap between man and beast. The wonder of observing mother nature at work excites young and old alike, so keep feeding the birds in a responsible way that will support our treasured wildlife.