We have ‘upped’ our birdfeeding activity in our backyard a lot this year but the more I learn about the problems associated with the practice, I’m having strong doubts.
Are we just breeding invasive, aggressive non-native house sparrows who crowd out threatened indigenous species? Should we be spending our time and money other ways to encourage more diversity? Possible spread of avian diseases?
What is the overall bottom line on the practice of urban birdfeeding?
It may depend where you live (news piece based on this paper, which is UK-focused but worth a read wherever you are based). When it comes down to it, the main beneficiaries of bird feeding are humans. While you can make a case that some individual birds benefit, they are typically from species and populations that are not in need of help.
When I have questions about feeding practices, I usually check the articles at Cornell School of Ornithology. The stories are quite engaging. For my part, I only use hummingbird feeders. I gave up on seed feeders as the kicked out seeds attracted too many pests (squirrels, rodents, even a skunk)
Squirrels dominate our neighbourhood, which has lots of great big mature trees. They also decimate gardens, cables, green compost containers (I had them chew right through the top part one time we stored birdseed in one and went on a two week holiday). And even though I’ve tried so many methods to keep them out of feeder range, they still keep trying – and harvesting the kicked-out fallout you mentioned.
We have hummingird feeders as well and I was surprised that downey woodpeckers and orioles occasionally feed off these. We’re also on a major migration pathway so having feeders in the spring and fall is especially tempting for bird enthusiasts.
And lately I’ve been thinking, if we took the money we spend feeding squirrels, starlings, grackles, redwing blackbirds and mourning doves (95% of the consumption) and donated that to conservation or research support instead… wouldn’t that make more sense?
But as @deboas said, it comes down to benefitting US, not so much the animals.
And it’s extra-hard since my wife developed joint pains that prevent her from joining me on my nature trail walks.
And skunks? Yes, I have spent many hours burying strong lattice stuff around porches and decks to keep those in check. And of course, they enjoy leaving divets all over what lawn we actually have left after deliberately avoiding herbicides.
Weird by-product of Canada making cannabis legal? It’s getting harder and harder to know (by scent) if you’re getting a skunk in your yard, or… just chilled out neighbours.
Feeders are needed in the winter only anyway, there’s no good reason to have them up when there’s an abundance of natural food, for US which is in significantly warmer climate, it’s probably even less actual to have them at all.
The safest and most natural way of providing food for birds is by landscaping with native plants. Audubon’s Native Plant Database provides an easy way to look up plants native to your specific area.
This method is obviously more labor intensive than simply hanging a few feeders, especially when first getting started. Additionally, HOA regulations can sometimes be challenging to navigate. However, as someone who loves gardening as much as I love watching birds, I find it immensely rewarding. You don’t have to replace your entire yard or go war with your HOA to landscape with native plants. Just keep native plants in mind next time you need to fill a gap in your yard.
I just recently replaced an invasive Mimosa Tree sapling with a native alternative that attracks hummingbirds, Red Buckeye. Native plants have the added benefit of drawing birds that don’t visit feeders into you yard. Things like native oaks, willows, cherries, and birches will attract warblers and other insectivores. Native plants also support more than just birds. My Red Buckeye provides nuts for the squirrels and is a host plant to Saddled Prominent Moths.
With caution, bird feeders can be harmless to birds. Not especially beneficial, especially not compared to making the area more bird-friendly in general, but harmless. There’s nothing wrong with doing a thing that’s harmless to wildlife, particularly if it can help to spark interest in conserving said wildlife.
(Edit: though I do wish it was more widespread knowledge that the feeder is for you, not for the birds, and that other things are best done if you actually want to boost bird populations.)
As to house sparrows, there are a lot of seeds they aren’t especially keen on. I only feed those seeds. (Also, they aren’t invasive everywhere. Ironically enough, aren’t they getting rarer in their native habitat? I know something sparrow-like is.)
Bird feeders also make incredible cat entertainment. Hang one right by the window (they won’t hit the window, since they’re coming in to land, not trying to fly through it), put one-way film on the window so they can’t see in, and watch your cat spend literal hours transfixed by the birds inches away. My parents’ cat has all but stopped going outside since getting a feeder to stare at, which is definitely good for the environment. It’s the best cat TV in the world.
Anecdotal evidence here to be sure, but my mother-in-law set up bird feeders in her neighborhood, which had had almost no bird activity for many years, and now her entire block is bursting with birdsong every day. And she’s had quite a few birds decide to nest in and around her yard, which never happened before either - downy woodpeckers, bewick’s wrens, pygmy nuthatches, and oak titmice just to name a few.
A few of the neighbors also set up feeders after seeing her successes, which has brought in even more birds.
But it’s a suburban-ish neighborhood that’s pretty lacking in food plants for wildlife, surrounded by a very drought-impacted region. When there’s more “natural” food sources, like when the thistles all went to seed, the birds didn’t use the feeders nearly as much.
So I guess I’d say, if you have the room to do bird-beneficial landscaping, that’s probably best, but if you’re lacking in space, there’s no harm in helping out a bit with some feeders (as long as you keep them clean and take them down if you hear of any disease outbreaks).
Here it is an uphill mission to convince urban edge residents, who make baboons into ‘problem’ animals - that they should NOT put out food (birdseed, veggie gardens, fruit trees, unmanaged garbage bins)
Alas, yes. I live in an area where there used to be many, they were a staple. In the last five years, however, I haven’t seen ONE. While I get to see rarer birds in my neighbourhood, no luck with sparrows though. Whenever someone posts an observation of one here, you can tell it catches people’s eye now.
This year I put out water and seeds on the balcony to see what kind of bird would visit, secretely hoping for the odd sparrow, and I pointed a trailcam at the entire balcony so I wouldn’t miss any bird. Turned out only and exclusively Parus major frequent my balcony, no other birds. I stopped feeding them, providing only water now.
I live in a rather harsh climate. I believe it is better to provide some easy source of food for the birds that hang around at -25 C than not. I’m a privileged human, in a warm house - why not spread some of that around? Although I hate squirrels (especially since one bit me when giving it a peanut), feeding them is ok too. Hopefully, some other life forms will eat them!
I have liked your post for the first two sentences. Food in the winter and water in the summer is more than ok, in my view, especially now that summers get hotter and drier. The German NABU actually has adjusted its recommendations, too, and is all for feeding birds all year round, not just during the winter. Of course, the best avenue is planting local trees and shrubs that provide the berries and nuts they need.
I do not see eye-to-eye with your for the other two squirrel-related sentences, though. ;-) Three years ago a delivery driver asked me to come out to meet him by the van. He had found a black squirrel on the road, likely hit by a car, so he had picked the poor fellow up and dropped by my place although I wasn’t on his delivery list that day. When finding injured wildlife, in our area we are obliged to notify the local wildlife rescue service. Having to finish his run, though, he couldn’t spare the time. So I ended up with a limping young black male squirrel full to ticks and with a chipped tooth in a wire cat carrier waiting for the rescue folks to come pick him up, which they did a couple of hours later.
I used to be of the opinion that birds have been feeding themselves for thousands of years, and don’t need our help. But with humans encroaching more as the population grows, I do feed birds, but mainly I’m focused on the wintering sparrows that visit my yard. I don’t have a squirrel problem, but my main concern is my bird feeders have become cat feeders. I raised the seed platform and made it so that cats cannot climb it, but of course the sparrows will scratch the seed off the platform. The statistics of bird deaths from cat predation are listed at 2.4 BILLION deaths per year, a staggering amount. But, it hasn’t stopped me from feeding, so I don’t know the answer.
Thanks! I don’t really hate squirrels. I just find them incredibly annoying. And abundant. There seem to be thousands of them around here. And they will eat anything.
BTW, did you get any observations of the ticks?