Does Bird Feeding Affect Bird Behavior?

Much of the behavior we observe in our backyard birds is centered on the artificial feeders we set out for them. Offering those tasty treats brings the birds in closer so that we may appreciate their beauty and enjoy their antics. Some feel compelled to feed the birds because of a desire to help them out. But not all folks agree with the hobby, questioning whether our artificial feeds adversely affect the behaviors of our birds. In this column I want to focus on 10 common questions regarding the pros and cons of bird feeding.

1) If I feed the birds in winter, will I prevent them from migrating south?

There is no scientific proof that feeding birds alters their migratory habits. Having said that, some scientists believe accipiters like Cooper’s hawks and sharp-shinned hawks forego migration in some areas due to the abundance of prey at bird feeders, a behavior called short-stopping. It is also believed that the presence of feeders has facilitated the northern population expansion of northern cardinals, mourning doves, tufted titmice, and others. Certainly the urge to migrate is deeply ingrained in most birds and is mainly controlled by changes in day length. When the days shorten in the fall, hormones induce both restlessness and fattening through increased feeding. In short, when it is time to head south, they go. Some species like swallows will even abandon nestlings in their nests to migrate south.

2) When I attract songbirds to a location on a regular basis, am I serving them up on a platter to raptors?

Some raptors, particularly Cooper’s hawks, sharp-shinned hawks, American kestrels, and merlins, frequent backyards containing feeders in search of small birds. Accipiters are especially fond of hiding among shrubs and trees to suddenly dash into a group of feeder birds. But they usually capture the weaker or less fit birds. Whether they kill birds at a feeder or at some other location, keep in mind that it is all part of nature, “red in tooth and claw.” Birds of prey are part of the natural landscape and their appearance at your feeders should actually add drama to your backyard. If the birds abandon your feeders due to the presence of a hawk or falcon, it is generally only temporary. If there are no birds, the raptor will move on.

3) If I and/or my neighbors own a cat, should I forego feeding the birds?

I estimate that free-ranging pet cats kill one to two billion birds annually in the world. But not all cats kill birds. If you do have a cat or two hanging about your yard with murder on their minds, keep your feeders and birdbaths out of reach and well away from vegetation where the cats can hide to ambush birds. Using seed trays on your feeders to prevent seed from falling to the ground will minimize the numbers of vulnerable ground-feeding birds. Spraying unwanted cats with water can be quite effective at training them to avoid your yard, and it won’t actually hurt the animal.

4) By attracting birds to my yard with feeders, am I increasing their risk of striking windows?

Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania estimates that somewhere between 100 million to a billion birds die from striking glass in North America each year. However, if you locate your feeder either within five feet of your windows or, alternatively, 30 feet away or more, you can minimize the chances of bird strikes. There also exist myriad ways to reduce the amount of reflective surfaces on windows that create the illusion of empty space.

5) Do birds actually need the food I offer in my feeders?

Generally no. They likely do use your feeder as a fast-food outlet in times of food shortages though. At least three published scientific studies have shown nutritional and reproductive benefits to blue jays, black-capped chickadees, and tufted titmice that breed in neighborhoods that are home to plenty of feeders.

6) By offering food to birds, am I helping to elevate squirrel populations?

John Terborgh in his 1989 book Where Have All the Birds Gone? claims that bird feeders are responsible for artificially elevating the populations of squirrels, which are known to be voracious predators of birds’ eggs and nestlings. His arguments do make sense to me and they offer a strong case for dissuading these furry rascals—squirrel-resistant feeders, baffles, less desirable seeds such as Nyger, etc.

7) Do feeders heighten the spread of disease among birds?

This is one of the strongest anti-feeding arguments. Although it is true that forcing birds to feed together at common places can lead to increased disease transfer, it is also well known that birds often feed in groups, including mixed-species flocks, in the wild regardless. Good feeder hygiene—cleaning feeders regularly, offering fresh seed, minimizing feces build-up—and generally striving for quality versus quantity of desired visitors can lessen this problem.

8) Should I worry about my feeders attracting pigeons to my yard?

Yes, but not because pigeons are inherently evil. Regrettably, they have gotten a bad rap in the public eye, often being referred to as “winged rats” and “flying bags of disease.” Pigeons do not carry any more diseases than other wild birds, but because they have this public stigma, it is not wise for backyard feeder operators to use sloppy feeding practices that attract pigeons and eventually the enmity of neighbors. This can sometimes lead to draconian municipal laws that ban bird feeding altogether.

9) By feeding the birds, am I helping the economy in some way?

Bird feeding is a multibillion-dollar industry. Keeping your feeders up and filled year-round can help small businesses like nature stores survive, particularly in bad economic times. Growing seeds for the bird-feeding crowd has also become a popular agricultural practice, especially in developing countries.

10) Can my backyard bird-feeding hobby be useful to the conservation of birds?

Absolutely yes. In the past decade or so, citizen science has become a major tool used by conservationists to help bird populations. Participating in events like the Great Backyard Bird Count allows scientists to acquire snapshots of how bird populations are faring from year to year, as well as detecting long-term trends. This information becomes particularly critical in the face of climatic and habitat changes.

So there you have it. To my mind, there is only one reason you should offer food to the birds in your backyard—to enjoy them!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ben Slover

    With regards to suggestion # 7, feces build-up on bird feeders can pose a constant, year-round threat to health of backyard birds, especially through the most common backyard avian disease, salmonellosis. Cleaning feeders regularly with a recommended bleach solution will always be good advice, but it is not a silver bullet when it comes to heading off avian diseases in backyard birds. The biggest part of the problem is that not all backyard birders follow the same strict maintenance schedules when it comes to regularly sanitizing bird feeders. You may be very diligent about this, but your backyard birding neighbor down the street that may be sickening your backyard birds through his/her unsanitary dropping-covered feeder, may not. Another big part of the problem is that almost all bird feeders available on the open market are inferior in a sanitary sense, as they harbor droppings on surfaces of the feeder where birds will also perch that are not the intended perches of the feeder. This includes the flat top seed refill caps of tube feeders where droppings can accumulate that the birds will be exposed to when they perch there while they wait their turn at the seed ports below. Hopper style feeders are even worse when it comes to providing all kinds of surface area for droppings to accumulate on that are also surfaces where the birds will perch. —-To be fair to garden birders, how are they to somehow make a feeder as sanitary as possible when it harbors droppings on surfaces the birds will be exposed to when they perch there? And, to be fair to garden birds , what quantities of bird feces is a fair amount to expose them to on feeder surfaces, when it only takes exposure to 1 contaminated dropping from 1 bird infected with salmonellosis to spawn this disease in individual birds and the larger populations they belong to. A contaminated dropping deposited on a feeder that the birds may be exposed to poses the same health threat to garden birds, whether it’s deposited 1 hour or 1 week AFTER this feeder has been properly sanitized. I would also hazard a guess that most backyard birders do not know that salmonellosis can easily be spread from bird to bird.- So, what can be done ? Maybe more than backyard birders may think. The good news is that it is possible to PREVENT exposure to droppings for birds at the feeder by simply using the right types of feeders and accessories ALREADY AVAILABLE ON THE OPEN MARKET. I hope someone with the humane society would consider visiting my youtube page under my first and last name that shows my 2 videos and descriptions on how this can be done, again by using the right set ups already offered on the market. If sanitary standards for bird feeder set ups are never set by an organization such as yours that has some influence, then backyard birders will never have any guidance when it comes to choosing a bird feeder system that’s as sanitary as possible for them, and their backyard birds. Unfortunately, and all too often, people choose a feeder by how charming it may look. It may really be cool that you can buy or build a bird feeder that looks like a beautiful, little miniature house, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to function as a consistently sanitary feeder for your backyard birds if it harbors droppings on surfaces where the birds may perch. So, my approach is to prevent exposure to droppings at the feeder by mechanically preventing birds from being able to deposit droppings on the feeder in the first place. The approach that you can just sanitize your way out of this is short-sighted and a flawed approach that unfortunately is still endorsed as a silver bullet, when it’s not. Maybe I’m missing something, but what are the residual qualities of a recommended bleach solution that ZAP the bacteria out of bird droppings when they are deposited on a feeder AFTER it is sanitized ? This is a hugely popular man-made hobby with all kinds of man-made, avian disease fostering error built in. Birds are sickened by these bacteria laced feeders , and then they go off and die somewhere else, so it’s the tree that falls in the forest, and whether or not that creates a “sound”, or not. I am certainly not suggesting that any organization try to tell bird feeder producers what to manufacture, but I am suggesting that on behalf of the health of backyard birds that we do a better job working with what is available to garden birders, and testing it properly for sanitary standards. It may seem daunting, but it’s been my experience that it isn’t. I hope you will consider visiting my youtube channel to see how it’s simply done. And, I also hope that in the future you will consider trying to duplicate my results, and publicly endorse that bird feeder set ups in a sanitary sense should at least be seen in a relative light to each other. My approach uses common seed tubes along with conical baffles made by countless manufacturers around the planet, so this is not about endorsing one company over another. It’s all about doing the best with what responsible garden birders have available to them that function to be as worry-free as possible, and better protect the health of their backyard birds, Protecting garden birds from avian diseases spawned in the garden takes a comprehensive approach beyond providing a more sanitary feeder system, but a cleaner feeder is certainly at the center of those more responsible efforts.

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