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