Should we feed birds?

by John Elliott, CAS Board member

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, more than 65 million Americans of all ages watch, feed and landscape for birds. Birding is one of the most popular and fastest growing forms of outdoor recreation in America. Having a feeder keeps us in touch with our colorful neighbors in our own backyards. National Audubon, Cornell Labs, the Fish and Wildlife Service and others offer helpful online guides to safe and enjoyable feeding. basics.pdf Though it may seem odd for CAS, there are questions worth asking. Adding tons of seed annually to our environment is an uncontrolled experiment with impacts on birds that we do not fully understand. Ranges of cardinals and other species have been expanding north for years. With so many other changes in our environment, we don’t know what role bird feeders play. Studies have shown that some House Finches in Arizona and Great Tits in England have evolved changes in beak shapes better adapted for getting at feeders. We don’t know if that will mean significant long term changes in survival or in relationships to other species. More immediately, we want to believe that our feeders help birds, but there is surprisingly little evidence of that. In a study of Black-capped Chickadees in rural Wisconsin, removal of feeders for two weeks in winter had little impact. Those birds had alternative food sources and outcomes for more urban birds may be different. Feeders may lead to more deaths from window strikes. Proper cleaning and maintenance of feed stations will alleviate the potential spread of disease but not eliminate it. A feeder may be a smorgasbord for outdoor cats. And there is always the problem of squirrels, rats and other “nuisances” like starlings and pigeons, which can lead to conflicts with neighbors.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology used Project FeederWatch and Christmas Bird Count data to assess impact on 98 species that visit feeders. They found that most birds that use feeders are doing pretty well, and those that aren’t had experienced significant loss of habitat or other problems. “This means that although feeding birds may not be harmful to the species that use feeders the most, it also isn’t helpful to the species that most need our help.” (https://www. After all, though, feeding birds is a great way to enjoy and interact with the natural world, and that may be its greatest benefit. Yes, enjoy your clean, well-maintained feeders. And while you watch, consider also what you can do for the many birds that your feeders can’t help.