Sunday, August 24, 2008

Is It Safe to Feed the Birds?

I run into this question a lot. Either as “I don’t believe in feeding birds”…for reasons about interfering with habitat and/or migration, I think. Or, that with the threat of Bird Flu hanging over us; why court trouble? I’ll respond to this question in three parts: habitat, migration and human safety.

Let me start by saying good bird habitat is shrinking right along with all habitat. We think of forest as habitat and that it is only being depleted in tropical countries. However, considering that we are loosing hundreds of acres of forest and croplands per state, per day, to development…and add to that global warming which is creating havoc with weather and temperature which in turn creates havoc with what grows where…and to that add the results of pollution and poisoning of waterways, bodies of water and the earth and air that all living things depend upon…and you will understand why birds are declining. It is for that simple reason that I feed birds.

So many birds migrate; some traveling thousands of miles, sometimes over multiple continents; to get to breeding areas. Considering that they must find food and rest along the way…I rather enjoy the idea that I am helping the birds by feeding them. I keep my yard planted with native plants; it has been discovered native (natural) plants have more nutrition (nectar) than do those bred for beauty. I use no herbicides or insecticides and use natural fertilizers. I keep birdbaths and small ponds clean and free of ice, and I offer seed, suet, and nectar and sometimes nuts and fruit. At the height of summer, I slow down on the free meals and at the height of winter I increase the number of feeders times three or more. And I have a view far more interesting than the television set.

In my mind, we owe birds for the damage we’ve done removing their habitat; for ruining their water and depleting their natural foodstuffs. Birds are not just pretty beings; we need them for so much more than just entertainment. Birds are necessary for seed distribution and pollination; insect and invertebrate control; mouse and other such pest control, scavenging and keeping forests, rivers and parks clean. I think we owe ‘em. (and no, they won’t suffer if you go on vacation and don’t feed them for a few weeks).

Regarding the idea that feeding wild birds will cause them to stop migrating is an urban myth. Birds begin and quit migrating when weather changes. It has been discovered birds are moving migration sites some 40 miles north…due to climate change. That would be why we have some birds staying in Florida or along the Gulf of Mexico instead of moving for the winter to Central or South America. Nor will feeding wild birds make them lazy.

As far as bird flu goes…while it has been confirmed that wild birds are in part responsible for the spread of bird flu, it is from association with kept birds that humans become infected. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Audubon Society, all agree it is quite safe to feed wild birds.

I feed wild birds. I am comfortable that not everybody wants to do so. I love it that some folks ensure their yards include bird-friendly plants; plants that feed the birds and offer them places to rest or nest. That’s plenty good enough for me! Just watch those chemical poisons, please; and keep in mind it travels by wind and water…ever deeper and right into our waterways. Heard about dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico? Chemical fertilizer is considered the prime cause of dead zones around the world…it’s not something that only happens somewhere else. And it starts in each of our own backyards.

Cornell offers a wealth of information regarding birds and feeding birds, and Audubon includes similar information, as well as a really good FAQ page.

Feeding waterfowl seems to be a whole different ballgame, however. Most people feed bread and cheap bread at that. Bread, pop-corn, chips; all have little to no nutritional value. It also encourages the congregation of ducks to the point that water and shores and walkways become fouled with feces. Bread in water encourages algae, which choke out the life in water when overabundant. You’ve seen it happen. Please, don’t feed wild ducks!

All photos on this post from the free Wikipedia.


Bosque Bill said...

Right On!!

Beverly said...

Awwwww, thanks Bill. I know it's all been said before...mostly in bits and pieces, it seems.

But, can it be said too often?

I don't think so! I appreciate your support...


lkw said...

Hi, Beverly-
I haven't seen any good evidence not to feed birds (at least seeds and nuts), as well as provide more habitat, etc. in the garden, like you, so I'm with bosque bill. I didn't use to have feeders, but we've had SO much fun watching the parade of visitors since adding them in addition to our plantings --geez, we'd have missed out on noticing a lot of interesting bird behavior and activity -- from hummingbirds to woodpeckers.

And you're definitely on target with ducks, geese, etc. - that's a totally different thing, entirely.

And the feral & free-roaming cats, hhrmph. Our chipmunk population would be better if they weren't around....our soft-hearted neighbors aren't very wise, unfortunately, nor are some of the folks on main campus, who feed the 'wild' cats. There are even poor cats that get dropped off at the garden where I work, and quickly revert to excellent predators.


Beverly said...

Hiya Lisa, thanks for dropping by again.

Yes, I’ve run into folks who insist it is NEVER a good idea to feed wildlife…including birds. My little brother is one such person…so of course I wonder if ‘ease of use’ isn’t more the answer. Heh heh heh…yeah, I’m a big sister).

Every single place I’ve looked, birds are not included in the ‘don’t feed’ argument…and considering what we’ve done to habitat, and the fact that these are migrating creatures (and tiny at that) which need to find food quickly sometimes (like…when habitat is suddenly no longer there!), I believe it’s more an obligation that behooves us, not just a hobby; kind of like just being green.

Okay, having said that, I realize I sound rather rabid, and I don’t mean to be so strident. There probably are enough greenie, tree-hugging birders out there to make a significant difference; so I don’t think we need to pass laws forcing folks to hang a feeder in their yard! LOL

Still, I recently read a piece that suggested our cemeteries are places that can kill a hummingbird! Yup, apparently one that uses a lot of plastic flowers on gravesites will cause an already exhausted migratory to go from fake flower to fake flower until it can hardly fly. And, just consider how fast our wild and rural lands are being paved over or how fast small farmers are disappearing to the huge mono-crops of corporate business (farmers). Yeah, I think we’re obligated to take what care of our birds that we can.

Water birds are a different story, as are pigeons and such; I’m talking about smaller local birds and the migrating birds that other countries share with us. I wouldn’t advocate feeding birds of prey either (other than accepting your feeding stations will be hunted), but song-birds and hummingbirds and most of the other birds that use our feeders are necessary to our very existence. People don’t consider that, methinks, but they are absolutely necessary for pollination and seed distributions. Most forests depend on birds for survival, as do some plants. So, why not feed birds? :)

As far as the cats…I got blasted by some woman who apparently thinks I want all cats euthanized! I don’t; but I do think they need to be kept inside. Most of the cats I had in the past were indoor/outdoor cats; that was before I knew better. Now; all cats stay inside, but I do like the idea of outdoor runs like some dogs have. And a cat kept inside does not miss the outdoors once it’s used to being inside. There are websites dedicated to helping folks teach a cat to be an indoor cat, too ( As far as the TNR program…I applaud those folks for what they are doing, I suppose. Fixed cats are bound to help control the population explosion of cats brought on by outdoor cats, but it certainly doesn’t make their life an easy one. The cat is not meant to be a wild creature here…as I know you know (I know I sound like I’m preaching to the choir (sorry)), and just cause it can’t spread its spawn doesn’t make it much easier on the environment. Yanno?

So, in many ways it is the horrible life of starvation, diseases and infection (from nipped ears and surgical procedures?) that is why I am not so gung-ho for the TNR ‘fix’. Besides, while the colonies eventually do get smaller they do still do astronomical damage.

I will NEVER understand the people who ‘drop off’ their animals anywhere but at the SPCA. Some woman recently ‘dropped off’ the family German Shepherd/Wolf hybrid in the forest near here…because it was biting people and killing cats, but she couldn’t have it put down; right. And then she blogged about it (; go figure.

Okay, back to birds; I'm glad you're having fun. Me too, I'm busy planting more berry-producing shrubs this fall. I recently read native (not hybridized to look pretty plants have more nectar. Who knew? I wonder if that's why the birds haven't yet discovered my thornless Hawthorn? I wonder if the fruit is no good. (sigh)