Enjoy Your Busy Bird Feeders

Mar 6, 2019

A Prothonotary Warbler in Eastham in 2010.

While it seemed like we might get away with leaving the shovels in the shed this year, it looks like winter finally caught up to us. I, for one, don’t mind a little snow on the ground, notwithstanding the 8-foot-wide plow ridge they inexplicably left in front of my mailbox. Snow means an opportunity to track wildlife, one of my favorite outdoors pursuits. And, more appropriately for our purposes, it means more birds at the feeder. So, let’s take a closer look at this curious and surprisingly recent American pastime: feeding the birds.

While 19th century people were tossing old grain to birds in the dooryard, bird feeding as the year-round, mildly obsessive pursuit didn’t start until the 1980s. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s national survey on wildlife recreation, 57 million people now feed wild birds in North America. Weirdly, if you read further in the same survey, only 38 million reported closely looking at the birds, so, according to these numbers, 19 million people feed the birds but then apparently forget to look out the window. Either that or the Fish and Wildlife Service needs to fire their survey statistician. But I digress. The point is that’s a lot of people, and a lot of money spent on seed, feeders, and other accoutrements - $4 billion a year in the United States, to be precise. Why do we do it? Is it even good for the birds?

Maybe it’s obvious why we do it – birds are beautiful and fun to watch, and we like to see them up close. Many like to feel that they are helping birds by providing food. While there has not been as much research on the topic as you might think, the literature does have good news for you “I’m helping the birds” types - it turns out you may be right. A study published in the journal Conservation Physiology looked at the health of birds in areas with and without bird feeders in Illinois, and they found that, in terms of several physiological measures, birds were healthier and less stressed in areas with bird feeders. They did find an increase in diseases like conjunctivitis and avian pox in the feeder areas, but concluded that this was offset by the improved overall health of the birds. It may be worth noting that this research was funded by the bird feeding industry, including the Scott’s company, which was fined $12.5 million dollars in 2012 for knowingly and illegally selling bird seed laced with pesticides toxic to birds. Hmm.

However, other, less sketchily-funded research also reached the conclusion that feeding the birds can increase their survival, such as a 1988 study on Black-capped Chickadees. But the potential negatives are undeniable, and worth thinking about. In addition to increasing transmission of diseases like the conjunctivitis many of our House Finches display, there are the issues of predation by cats, birds hitting windows, and that suddenly ubiquitous topic in the Cape Cod suburbs– rats.

Tune in next week for bird feeding part two, where I’ll tackle some of the darker sides of bird feeding and how to mitigate for these potential negatives, as well as what to feed and how to generally be a better bird feeding citizen, which includes sharing your observations with researchers. Until then, enjoy your busy feeders while you wait for the next late-season storm.