The Pros and Cons of Backyard Bird Feeders
I used to love feeding birds and watching birds come to the feeders I set up. That was until I noticed that birds pecking around feeders seemed a lot more susceptible to predators. I also heard that some birds become so dependent on feeders that they forget how to hunt and forage for their own food. Some birdseed had also been tainted with pesticides, which can be deadly for our feathered friends. I decided to look into the pros and cons of backyard feeders before I put up any more feeders around my house. Here’s what I found.
PROS OF BACKYARD BIRD FEEDERS
* Attract more birds to the yard.
Beyond a doubt, one of the biggest benefits of having bird feeders is that they attract so many birds that I might not otherwise see. I live outside Washington, D.C., so it’s not unusual to enjoy robins, blue jays, starlings, sparrows, crows, and mockingbirds. But bird feeders attract more wrens, cardinals, black-capped chickadees, goldfinches, catbirds, vireos, and other songbirds. The diversity is great, and it is lovely to hear all those birds singing in the trees.
* Help birds survive, especially when food and water are scarce.
Here in the mid-Atlantic, winters can be extremely cold and harsh. Most songbirds will have left the region for warmer climates by the time December rolls around. For those that stay here, finding something to eat, as well as water that’s not frozen, can be a challenge. Bird feeders as well as bird baths or ponds can make a difference. A study conducted during winter in Wisconsin showed that black-capped chickadees survived at a much higher rate (69 percent) when they had access to human-provided seed than those that did not (only 37 percent), reported Nature.org.
* Help birds compensate for habitat loss and climate change.
Bird feeders are particularly valuable in urban areas where it is difficult to forage for food among cement buildings and pavement. Most research shows that well-fed birds build better nests, lay stronger eggs, and raise hardier babies.
* Help birds during migration.
Many birds fly great distances when they migrate in spring and fall. Having access to seed in bird feeders may help them survive the journey, and increase their reproductive success.
* Educate people.
Nature centers often set up bird feeders because they’re such a great draw for people who inevitably want to learn more about the birds they see. I used to take my kids to a restaurant that was all windows, with dozens of bird feeders stationed right outside. We would spend an hour or more during our meal trying to identify the birds, and reading through the bird guides on each table. It was a wonderful family outing and a delightful way to teach the kids about nature.
* Create a tourist industry that helps protect bird habitat.
Some communities have been able to turn bird feeding into a tourist attraction that creates the resources needed to protect the birds. The feeders are set up at a distance, and tourists sit in blinds or shacks far enough away so they will not disturb the birds but can still see them well, especially if they use binoculars.
CONS OF BACKYARD BIRD FEEDERS
* Attract rats, squirrels and other pests.
Birds are not particularly tidy creatures. They usually litter the ground below the bird feeder with spilled seed and the hulls from cracked seeds, all of which provide a tasty meal for rodents and squirrels. If you don’t want more four-footed creatures running about, you should probably skip a bird feeder.
* Fall prey to hawks and cats.
Birds may alight on the ground to eat fallen bird seed, where they are easy pickings for cats that have learned to lie in wait or hawks whose sharp eyes are always on the look-out for a defenseless meal. With many bird populations already threatened from habitat loss, climate change and pollution, should they also have to worry about what’s waiting for them at a bird feeder?
* Suffer more disease.
Parasites and diseases spread more easily when birds concentrate around a feeder. “Seed-eating siskins and grosbeaks may contract salmonella and even die at feeders during outbreaks of that disease,” reports the Slater Museum.
* Compete with nesting birds.
Bird feeders may attract so many animals – winged and otherwise – that other birds might not feel comfortable building nests, laying eggs, and staying with the babies once they hatch. The Audubon Society of Rhode Island stops feeding birds at their headquarters in mid-March because their feeding station is close to their bluebird nesting boxes. They want to discourage invasive English Sparrows from using those boxes, so remove bird seed until the sparrows move on. RI Audubon resumes feeding in August or September, once the bluebirds have fledged.
* Lead to more window casualties.
Like my kids, many people like to look out the window at the birds feeding. But when feeders are positioned to close to window, birds can get disoriented and fly into the glass, which usually kills them. The solution, of course, is to position the feeders a safe distance away from the glass – and use binoculars.
* Require extra cleaning and maintenance.
Bird seed can rot, while bird spit and bird poop can make a big mess on feeder trays. Bird feeders need to be cleaned regularly, adding to household chores that might already take a lot of time. Plus, the ground under a bird feeder should be raked or shoveled to get rid of the debris that accumulates under the feeders. And oh yes – bird feeders need to be filled! Some feeders need to be replenished every day or two, depending on how many birds they attract.
* Add extra expense.
Bird seed can be costly. Even if you buy it more cheaply in bulk, over time, the purchases will add up. Know whether you have the budget to buy seed before you invest in a bird feeder.
* Bird seed could be toxic to birds.
In September of 2012, Scotts Miracle-Gro was fined $12.5 million for illegally applying insecticides to its wild bird food products. The company also falsified pesticide registration documents and distributed pesticides with misleading and unapproved labels, reported the National Audubon Society. An American Bird Conservancy report stressed the importance of choosing seed that has not been treated with pesticides called neonicotinoids, noting that “a single corn kernel coated with a neonicotinoid can kill a songbird. Even a tiny grain of wheat or canola treated with … imidacloprid (a neonicotinoid) can fatally poison a bird.” It is absolutely essential to fill bird feeders with seed that is organic and has not been treated with pesticides.
* Environmental impacts of seed production.
I can’t find much documentation on this issue, but it is reasonable to assume that producing bird seed is a resource-intensive industry. Plants that generate the original seeds would need to be planted, watered, harvested, bagged, and shipped to retailers and consumers.
Having looked at the pros and cons, I have found a middle ground for myself. I fill some bird baths and put up bird houses – but have decided to skip bird feeders. I figure putting out water takes a very small toll on me but offers birds a pretty high reward. And bird houses make it easier for birds to nest successfully without making them more available to predators, drawing more rodents to my property, or costing me a lot of money.
Where do you come down on all this? Are you pro – or con – bird feeders?