Should we be feeding wild birds?

So long as people have been feeding birds there has been a debate whether or not this is an acceptable practice. Or even a moral one. Is your backyard feeder ruining the character of your local birds, encouraging laziness and slothful habits? Are you somehow endangering them by making things too easy for them?

I am enjoying a book that asks these very questions, and searches through the scientific research for pertinent data to lay this issue to rest, for once and all. Darryl Jones trots the globe and scours the ornithological libraries to find out how many people feed birds and what the impact might be—on the humans as well as the birds—in The Birds at My Table: Why We Feed Wild Birds and Why it Matters. He seems to be tipping his hand a little in that subtitle.

Let’s all have a conversation on this surprisingly hot topic. Please use the comment section to weigh in, pro or con, or ambivalent, or “just wondering, too.” All opinions are worthy. As I read, I will report my findings and reflections for you in a kind of serial pondering.

In her 1939 book, Birds in the Garden and How to Attract Them, Margaret begins her chapter on “Feeding Devices”  by coming down unequivocally on the side of feeding birds: “There are people who say that we merely pauperize the birds by feeding them and that it is pure sentimentality  on our part to want to see the birds near us.”

She then relates a story told by E.H. Forbush, State Ornithologist of Massachusetts—Margaret was always happy to have a recognized authority on her side—about how his habit of feeding birds fortuitously drew them to his orchard and thereby saved his apple crop from an insect infiltration. The birds went from feeder to trees and busily gobbled down all the encroaching pests that they might not have noticed if they weren’t already in the neighborhood. He considered that a fair exchange.

She returns to her own argument by defending so-called sentimentality by reminding readers that,“…birds often perish by the thousands during a heavy snowstorm that covers all natural food, or when there is an ice storm and all twigs and branches are sealed with a glittering armor. The bluebirds were almost wiped out a number of years ago in an unseasonal storm.If it is sentimentality to assist birds through such a time of stress, then sentimentality  is a good thing. How much better to feed the birds through the year, getting them accustomed to a secure source of supply, than it would be to go out some subzero morning and find a chickadee frozen in a knothole, or the stiff form of a downy woodpecker or a brown creeper at the foot of a tree.”

Margaret went on to give detailed instructions on how to create a feeding station for birds. She followed a more do-it-yourself mode but did include information on feeders that were available by order from the National Audubon Society. She cautioned her readers to situate the feeder where it would be sheltered from cats and other predators, kept dry to preserve the food, and include fresh water and even a source of digestive grit. And in a place where the human benefactor could see the arrivals and “breakfast with the birds.” She freely acknowledged we feed the birds for our own pleasure as much as for their well-being and the health of our gardens. Is it any more complicated than that?

A well tucked-in bird feeding shelf, from Birds in the Garden

12 thoughts on “Should we be feeding wild birds?

  1. I come down on the side of feeding bird in my backyard – I feel a little differently about feeding ducks and geese at the duck pond some wonder bread. But, I guess feeding is feeding. I am curious to see how others feel.

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    1. The author addresses the duck in the pond feeding issue too. I was all focused on my birdfeeder routine with the specially bought food but had not even considered the ducks! They’re as wild as these chickadees, I guess. Lots to think about. Thanks for starting the conversation.

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  2. I have mixed feelings about this. Perhaps this discussion justifies my casual approach to filling my feeders on a regular basis: no chance that my local birds could possibly get dependent on me.

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  3. I think this is a not uncommon feeling. The author discusses the full range of attitudes, from ardent feeders to those who are openly hostile to the habit. Being somewhere in the middle range is likely a place for many. The issue of dependence is a lively one, We can further explore what that might mean, for the human and for the birds. Thanks for your expression of ambivalence, not an easy thing to say but very true and indicative, in part, of our lack of information on whether or nor feeding birds is a good idea. And then there is the chore of keeping up with the feeders!

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  4. That sounds very prudent! The point is not to lure birds to their death. But providing “natural” foods in your plantings–presumably with enough cover from your cat–is a great way to support birds and some argue the only thing we should all be doing. Though not everyone has a big enough garden for the purpose. I think there will be more to say on this topic!

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  5. After having a feeder for many many years, I come down on the side of assisting the wildlife to prosper. We provide water, food, shelter from plantings, And, when we go away for a month, no one is replenishing our feeders. When they are emptied out, they stay that way. When we return, I refill the bird bath, and refill the feeder. It takes a day or two but the numbers of birds are back as before – even the hummers. I don’t think any critter starved to death while we were gone. I think they just understand a good thing when they’ve got it!
    And I love Margaret’s observation about helping the birds out in the dead of winter. I think its a good thing if we can help a few more survive.
    As for feeding the ducks and geese, PAWS Wildlife people say – Please do not feed them bread! Bread is not part of their usual diet of course, and when they are fed bread – as many many people do – it can get all balled up and stuck in their gullets. Sometimes its gets stuck so bad they starve to death. Not something I knew before volunteering there.

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  6. Sounds like bread is almost as bad as plastic! I couldn’t help but ask if, say, Wonder bread type bread is the gummy mess that literally kills birds and maybe some other kinds might be a bit less harmful. But really, bread is bread and not a natural food source. Lots of people talk about feeding crumbs to birds….still an issue?

    I know we used to take our kids down to the lake and feed ducks bread….now I realize how that was not an innocent thing to do at all. And we all have done it. Thanks for your warning! Let’s spread the word! Save a duck today!

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  7. I am definitely pro-feeding. I have given up pet ownership for a variety of environmental and personal reasons. The birds are now my “pets” without pet waste, vet bills, or pet food. I also have planted lots of native plants and will be installing a water feature this summer. I have so many backyard birds that I arrange a “bird sitter” to fill my feeders if we are gone for long. I am still able to go places to bird but I know there are folks whose backyard birds are their main connection to nature. If we want citizens to support a conservation ethic politically, then bird feeding is a way to draw them in.

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    1. I hadn’t thought of “my” birds as pets but they are certainly little beings I fuss over and care about. I had a nuthatch with a wounded leg coming for awhile. It struggled to cling to the feeder and feed. I was so glad to be able to give it something it needed but anguished over it when it disappeared.
      Engaging people in larger conservation efforts through bird feeding and the accompanying feelings of care and compassion was a strategy employed by Margaret…and continues to be a foundational principle that works.

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  8. GOOD question. I wonder if I’m keeping some birds here in the winter who should be migrating. And are the bird seed, nuts and suet really good for them or junk food? But, on the yes-let’s-feed-them side, we eliminated a lot of their habitat when our houses and stores were built so maybe we owe it to them. And they are a delight to watch. So I put out good quality suet (from Wild Birds Unlimited) and nuts. And I have two hummingbird feeders, which they start to ignore when flowers start blooming.

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    1. It’s been interesting to read that in the early Audubon Society days, early twentieth century, they recommended using all kinds of kitchen scraps: vegetable peelings, leftover bits of this and that, donuts! Sometimes grain and garden trimmings. Later, commercial seed mixes made for wild birds became available and have been refined by research over time. I’m going to talk more about that revolution in a future post, stay tuned! And thanks for your GOOD question!

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