Feeding birds is a popular way to watch wildlife during the winter months. But many bird experts say the experience is often more pleasant for people than for birds. And it might even put wild birds at risk.
“Feeding birds is not necessary for their survival except in extreme weather conditions,” said Stephen Kress. He is with the National Audubon Society, an organization whose aim is to protect wildlife. “Feeders can definitely help them get through that kind of weather.”
Most birds eat insects and show little interest in bird feeders. For those birds, Kress suggests growing native plants in a natural environment.
In addition, birds who do eat seed “will be more likely to come to feeders if there is some cover nearby.” This lets them feed and then fly to protective areas, such as in trees.
The most common mistake people make with their bird feeders is incorrect placement. They put feeders in places where birds are frightened by foot traffic, risk being hurt by cats, or risk flying into windows.
Kress likes the idea of setting up a bird feeder at least one meter away from a window. That way, if a bird gets frightened, it won’t die when it hits the glass, he says. And, he urges owners of cats to keep them inside the home so they can’t hurt the birds.
Learn which bird species are common to your neighborhood so you can avoid feeder wars and understand the social order.
“Some birds are more aggressive at feeders,” Kress said. They eat a lot and do not leave much food for other birds.
A solution is to put the food in more than one place by using different kinds of seeds and feeders. Nyjer seeds, for example, are a favorite of goldfinches. Tube feeders with wire covers prevent large birds from entering.
Pay attention to seed quality and freshness. Unprotected seed left too long in feeders will turn moldy, and mold can kill wildlife. Refresh your feeders every few days and clean them often with a liquid of 10 percent bleach.
Adam Rohnke is a wildlife expert with Mississippi State University. He said people can feed birds more effectively by using black-oil sunflower seeds, as it is the favorite seed of feeder birds. The added value, he said, is that it reduces waste seed on the ground, which appeals to other small animals.
Rohnke also said that bird lovers can increase the number and diversity of birds by using different kinds of feeders. For example, some birds, such as doves and towhees, live close to the ground. So they like lower feeders.
Other birds like other things. Woodpeckers, blue jays and songbirds, for example, like suet, a hard fat in meat. Orioles, bluebirds and waxwings like fruit.
Another word of advice: Do not feed wild birds anything salty, like potato chips, or food that could choke them, like plain bread.
Always try to provide a supply of clean water, but use care when looking for the right birdbath. Most birdbaths are too deep for birds, Kress said. Putting a few large stones in the water can give the birds a place to sit.
And, for hummingbirds – which are very, very small – put water on large plant leaves to attract them. Hummingbirds like to bathe in leaves, Kress said.
I’m Alice Bryant.
Words in This Story
feeder – n. a device for supplying food to animals
species – n. a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants
moldy – adj. covered with a soft substance that grows on the surface of damp or rotting things
bleach – n. a strong chemical that is used to make something clean or white
diversity – n. the quality or state of having many different forms, types, ideas or other things
choke – v. to become unable to breathe because something gets stuck in your throat
birdbath – n. a bowl that is filled with water and usually raised above the ground in a yard or garden so birds can bathe in it