Ethics of feeding songbirds

Have you met Rock Squirrels? Common feeder robbers in New Mexico and they make gray squirrels look small Otospermophilus variegatus (Rock Squirrel) from Candelaria Farm, Albuquerque, NM by rwcannon57 · iNaturalist

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This was the species I had in mind.

Are the ones we got landed with in Cape Town. Once brought in because they were cute … now everywhere there are (equally invasive) pine trees for them.

I’ve definitely been trying to plant as many native flowers as I can to help the birds, and I don’t really fuss too much about dandelions. Its always fun seeing finches going after dandelion seeds. Heck, I don’t even bother with a hummingbird feeder, between the natives I’ve planted and my neighbor’s rose-of-sharons (gross) the hummers straight up ignore the feeder.

I will say, whenever I manage to attract a flock of starlings is usually when I take the feeders down for a week or so. There’s not much I can do about the house sparrows, unfortunately, but I can at least keep the starlings from bullying my native backyard birds.


Dependency on humans might be more accurate. (Is that our diverse biosphere I hear sighing?)

I’m so sorry my writing was not clear enough on that point for you. Yes, certainly, on humans. I think I called them “people”.

My apologies. Just a little dark humor there.
(I got your point)

So, I’m the only one worried about the risk of more songbirds? :-)

No worries, it is entirely possible that you are in fact wildly hilarious and I am just too tired to recognize brilliant humor; we have been rising at oh-dark-thirty for so many mornings in a row (Copa Mundial).

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Considering North America is seeing long-term losses across virtually all groups of birds, I don’t see that you have much to worry about.


Coming in here with the mandatory no-fun-allowed to remind everyone that touching wild mammals is generally quite inadvisable since they carry a whole host of easily transmitted diseases (Leptospirosis, tularemia, plague, etc.) along with lice, fleas, and ticks that can give you even nastier infections. (Birds are less of a problem from a health perspective as long as you are careful with habitation.)


In addition to what else has been said, these small birds (titmise and chickadees) are harmless if they are “harassing” you. Any habitually-fed mammal can possibly harm you, your pets, and/or your property, not to mention disease spread to humans and pets. I have a similar location with signs posted advertising that the birds are habituated to being fed. However, when I went to feed them by hand earlier in the fall, they did not come because there was plenty of natural food for them.

We have found ways to “responsibly” (depending on who you ask) feed game mammals, such as deer, with feeders on private property or food plots on gamelands. These practices may or may not be ethical and/or safe for the animals (we feed corn diets to deer we want to hunt because they get fat…), but they are encouraged and managed by wildlife agencies.

I attended the IUCN Iguana Specialist Group annual meeting this month and listened to a talk by researchers studying Cyclura iguanas on islands where they are fed as a tourist attraction (I don’t have a paper to link to since it’s not yet been published, sorry!). These iguanas were monitored physiologically before the pandemic and after the shutdown of tourism to these islands. The iguanas were being fed grapes by tourists and were pre-diabetic and much larger than non-fed iguanas. After humans stopped visiting, the iguanas transitioned back to a more natural diet, and they became healthier. These researchers are trying to find a way to allow this tourism to the benefit, rather than detriment, to the iguanas that are fed. (Iguana feeding can’t stop in totality and would never be outlawed because the economical benefit is just too great for the locals.)

TLDR; The takeaway here is that, like others said, we can feed these small songbirds a “natural enough” diet that isn’t to their detriment. They definitely do not depend on humans for all of their food. They are also harmless to us. They definitely won’t kill your dog because you taught them to get close to you or your home.

Larger birds, however, are a whole different topic…


There’s a metropark near me where I once witnessed a family feeding a raccoon. Definitely not everyone realizes the sorts of diseases that wild animals can spread, especially mammals

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Yes! When people feed waterfowl repeatedly at the same place, some food drops down. Over the course of the feedings the food and action can lure turtles, especially snapping turtles. These will wait below for a tasty duckling or cygnet. Some “survive” the turtle attack with damaged legs, leaving them vulnerable to others predators. Happens often in public parks, even with appropriate signage.


Well, now that I’m settled in to my apartment, I decided to put up the window feeder that I’ve had in storage. I live on the second floor, so the only suitable window is the sliding door to my balcony (the balcony is going to become a container garden as spring approaches). I just need to be mindful not to open the slider too far when I go onto the balcony.

The young woman at Wild Birds Unlimited suggested I try safflower seed if I want to avoid feeding squirrels – it seems that squirrels find safflower bitter.

The balcony looks out over a line of tall trees and shrubs between my apartment complex and the next building, and even though there are usually birds in that vegetation, it took several days for the birds to discover the feeder – it was just a couple of days ago. Carolina Chickadees were first, along with a female Cardinal on the balcony floor where some seeds had spilled. Today, these were joined by Tufted Tutmice.

Bringing the birds in close like this lets me observe things that I never could before: Tufted Titmice are bigger than Carolina Chickadees. Somehow, the name titmouse made me assume that they were tiny. If a chickadee is on the feeder, it will give way to a titmouse. I also noticed that these two species have different feeder habits. A Tufted Titmouse will grab one seed and fly away with it, whereas a Carolina Chickadee seems to swallow a seed or two before flying away with the last one – although, now that I have been watching longer, maybe the chickadees just pick up and reject a few seeds before deciding to keep one.

One thing confused me this morning: it looked like a Carolina Wren was at the feeder. I saw the narrow, curved bill. I wouldn’t expect wrens to come to seed feeders because their bills are not suited to cracking seeds (although the safflower seeds I’m using are hulled).


I get Carolina wrens at the seed cake feeder, which has a mix of seeds including safflower and some smaller ones. I don’t recall ever seeing them at the feeder with just the sunflower seeds.

Carolina Wrens definitely visit feeders occasionally, but obviously not quite as often as species more specialized on seeds. I was very surprised to have an Orange-crowned Warbler visiting my feed with some regularity a few years ago. The surprising species are often the best!

Interesting you mention this, because now I’ve been seeing a Yellow-rumped Warbler, not at the feeder, but among the spilled seeds on the balcony deck. I’m not sure what it is looking for, though, because it seems to pick up and drop the seeds rather than eat them.

The wren can monopolize the feeder; not even the titmice can displace it. Yet I notice that it pecks repeatedly without being seen to pick up any seeds. Could there be tiny insects congregating on the seeds?

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