Last week I started an in-depth look at bird feeding including why we do it and whether it actually helps the birds. If you missed it, the results are mixed, but studies do show that, as you may have suspected, feeding birds can increase their health and survival.
But the published literature also reveals some negatives, like disease transmission and increased mortality from cats and windows around feeders. And don’t forget those dreaded suburban bogeymen of late, rats.
Concentrating birds in an area with shared feeding stations can increase disease prevalence. You can see this for yourself by looking closely at your House Finches – many have an eye visibly shut due to conjunctivitis. Salmonella, fungal infections of the lungs, and other diseases are also a risk at crowded feeding stations. The solution is simple – literally. A 10% bleach solution on your feeders, that is. I keep some pre-mixed in a spray bottle, but soaking the feeders is recommended, and this goes for that petri dish you call a hummingbird feeder, as well.
The whole cat thing is trickier. If you want to start a fight in an online forum, bring up the issue of cats and birds – the ensuing comment storm will make recent political discourse seem genteel. If it’s your cat, please keep it indoors – that part is theoretically simple. But in my experience there always seems to be a neighbor with outdoor cats that hang out at your feeders and stalk the local breeding birds. We can’t let our dogs roam freely, so why is it ok for your cat to come hang out in my yard and harsh my bird-feeding mellow? Anyway, now that I’ve stirred things up, let’s change the subject.
It seems like every board of health or homeowner’s association is on the rampage against rats and birdfeeders these days. My guess is that some combination of increased backyard composting, hipster suburban chicken farming, and feeding birds have indeed increased rat populations in some areas. When I see one I take my feeders down for a few weeks and it seems to work. The most important thing I want to leave you with when it comes to rodents is to never use poisons – clinical studies have shown that an alarmingly high percentage of hawks and owls show detectable levels of the common rodenticides from eating the poisoned rats and mice, and many die from them. Even when you use it in your house, the mice end up outside where the predatory birds get them.
Now that I’ve fully bummed you out, I’d like to close with some basics on how to feed birds for those looking to get started.
If you want to keep it simple, you can’t go wrong with black oil sunflower seed in a squirrel proof feeder, which means one with a weight-sensitive cage over the feeding ports. A bird bath is also a must, preferably a heated one in winter, and maybe some suet. That’s all I have. But some people like to go nuts, literally, and provide things like peanuts. Call me selfish, but I keep the peanuts for myself. I know several folks who feed dried mealworms to attract bluebirds and it apparently works, though I see bluebirds in my yard frequently without them – they come for my heated birdbath and the suet in winter. Others like to offer the high-end hulled sunflower seeds, apparently to attract the lazy birds or to get better Yelp reviews on the bird internet. Hell, even professional baseball players eat the regular shelled seeds, as you probably know from watching their strangely rodent like dugout feeding behaviors. Come to think of it, I bet the Red Sox also have rat problems.