Is Feeding Birds “For the Birds”?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | March 15th, 2010 | 9 Comments
topic: Eco Travel, Green Living

Birds in Newfoundland

One in five Americans considers himself or herself a “bird watcher,” according to a report published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last summer. Going by the report’s guidelines, in order to qualify as a “bird watcher,” you either had to have taken a trip one mile or more away from home for the primary purpose of watching birds, or you had to have closely observed birds around your house. If you mostly spotted birds passively — while mowing the yard, for example, or while at a zoo — you would not be counted as a “bird watcher.”

Forty-two percent of the 48 million Americans who are bird watchers said that they took trips to view birds. But a whopping 88 percent (or 42 million) claimed to be also- or only-backyard birders. And one of the easiest ways to see the birds in your neighborhood is by providing and stocking feeders.

March is a hungry time.

Some bird experts believe that March is the most important time to provide food for birds. The third month of the year can be the most difficult in a bird’s life. Insect population numbers are still low from the winter, and the few remaining wild berries, seeds, fruits and nuts are too damaged, old, hidden under snow or otherwise undesirable. As birds prepare for the nesting season, sunny and warm days may be followed by ones that are cold and damp, challenging avian survival skills. And the rapid climate change of the last few decades has necessitated longer migration distances for some birds. All of these factors contribute to making a convincing case for helping our feathered friends with food.

An evolutionary change.

Bird Feeder

March can be the most difficult month in a bird’s life. ©John T. Andrews

However, there is evidence to support the claim that bird feeders spread disease. Birds can become ill from leftover bits of seeds and hulls that turn moldy, as well as from bird droppings that accumulate on feeder trays. Bird food and waste scattered on the ground below the feeders can attract rodents. The rodents draw the attention of hawks, who find that the birds that hang around feeders are easy prey, too.

The concentration of birds at your feeder also grabs the attention of cats, the most numerous pet in North America. Cats kill hundreds of millions of birds every year. And, ornithologists say, millions more birds are killed annually by flying into house windows, drawn in by the bird feeders set close-by. By feeding birds, we may even be changing their evolution.

Home or away?

Still other reports have stressed that there’s no way to know if disease transmission at feeders is any greater or less than disease transmission in the wild. Birds that do contract and spread diseases at feeders typically are social by nature and would congregate anyway, whether at a feeder or not.

Advocates of bird feeding say taking simple steps can eliminate the hazards of feeders to birds: cleaning feeders regularly will keep disease at bay; providing brush piles or planting trees and shrubs in your yard will give safe harbor from hawks; installing awnings, screens or attaching streamers to glass will prevent window strikes; and keeping cats indoors will cap mortality rates.

Newfoundland Bird Watching

"Bird watchers” have taken a trip one mile or more away from home for the primary purpose of watching birds. ©John T. Andrews

I can’t help noticing, though, that when we do travel to see birds, it is usually to the remote places where no human intervenes to feed them, such as to the wild shores of Newfoundland or the pack ice of Antarctica. In such places, hundreds of thousand of birds have lived together for centuries without our handouts.

Should we adopt the same stance at home in our own backyards? If you’re that one in five Americans who qualifies as a “bird watcher,” do you think we should feed the birds?

Happy trails,


Feature photo: No human intervenes to feed the birds on the wild shores of Newfoundland. ©John T. Andrews


  1. Yes, we should definity feed the birds. We live in a subdivision that at one time was a turpentine plantation in the South. Certain areas were keep as a perserve for wildlife. These areas are filled with pine trees, palmettos and heavy undergrowth, perfect for birds, raccoons, possums, armadillo. I feel since we took part of their land away to live on, the least I can do is provide them with special treats (like black oiled sunflower seeds) once in awhile. I don’t want them to rely on me for food, they still need to fend for themselves, but I don’t think it hurts to help out a little. It’s part of living with nature. As for cats, they need to be keep indoors in this day and age. There are too many disasters that can befall them outdoors. My cats have a lanai they can watch the birds from. Feral cats are just doing what comes natural and trying to survive like the rest of wildlife.

    JAK | March 15th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  2. Feeding birds is generally more important for the people who do it than for the birds. Writer and naturalist Julie Zickefoose, whose blog is a must-read for anyone interested in birds, nature, Boston Terriers, orchids, and painting (, wrote:
    “Never forget that we feed birds for our own pleasure and enjoyment, not because it’s good for them. Feeding birds is a human conceit, and coming to the conclusion that they depend on us for their very survival is a scam that they encourage us to believe. Don’t buy it. They’re much, much better off without our food stamps.”
    And, yes, Julie feeds the birds, but thoughtfully.
    Feeding the birds encourages us to observe them and care about them (and gives us all kinds of pleasure in the process). But it’s an activity that imposes certain responsibilities: CLEAN your feeder well, with bleach, from time to time. Remove detritus that accumulates beneath it. For hummingbird feeders, rinse and refill DAILY when it’s warm and clean once a week with bleach. Consider feeding most birds only when natural food is hard to come by (snow and ice are obstacles to keep in mind).
    Check out the “Top Ten Bird Feeding Myths” from Bird Watcher’s Digest at

    Joan Campbell | March 16th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  3. It’s probably fine to feed the birds, but it becomes a problem if that’s their only source of food. It’s indicative of an underlying problem in damaged habitats, if most birds are forced to survive by scavenging food provided for them by humans.

    Nine Quiet Lessons | March 17th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  4. Candy, Good article ! One point on the big flocks of sea birds..They feed mostly in the ocean..We occasionly feed sea gulls when they follow boats and scavenge the harbours and land fills. We have changed the geese, ducks(mallards), turkeys, sandhill cranes..Are there too many people ???

    Helen Iltis | March 17th, 2010 | Comment Permalink

    fern | March 18th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  6. I’ve never met a bird that was too good for a handout. I agree, clean that feeder.

    Travis | March 18th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  7. My initial feeling is anything we do to change the basic nature of a critter, like feeding birds, will eventually cause other problems. But our human incursions into their environments also cause unintentional problems that we then need to try and rectify, so the answer seems to be to tread lightly and think before acting.

    Art Hardy | March 19th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  8. To feed or not to feed and how long to feed? Does a wildlife feeder spread disease by concentrating wildlife in a small area? Does wildlife become dependent on us feeding them? Do predators gain a advantage when wildlife is concentrated at a feeder? So many questions and yes I feed the birds and other small wildlife at a bird feeder. I would also say yes to the other questions as well. As for how long do I feed, I put feed out thru late spring early summer. Maybe if we didn”t destory all of the wildlifes natural habitat around us we wouldn”t feel the need to feed.

    John H Gaukel | March 19th, 2010 | Comment Permalink
  9. I once started writing a sketch book about birds (finches) a while ago, I really must finished it off :o)

    gordon | July 18th, 2011 | Comment Permalink

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