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Doing the Most Good: Should We Feed Wild Birds?

Written by Shannon Finch | Published on January 28, 2015 | Filed under Humane Connection
The content that follows was originally published on the Institute for Humane Education website at http://humaneeducation.org/blog/2015/01/28/good-cats-wild-birds-feeders/
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hummingbirds on a feeder

Image via John Rakestraw.

The other day my cat Oreo killed a bird. That Oreo was out at all was an accident; he had apparently figured out how to use the dog door that morning. I found him and the unfortunate Dark-eyed Junco under my car.

As I buried the bird, I thought about the consequences of feeding wild birds. My family strives to do the most good and least harm in all things, and we bring that lens to all our choices, such as whether or not to feed wild birds. As the Oreo incident demonstrates, cats are a problem for birds. While wildlife experts disagree about the actual number of birds killed by cats (anywhere from 60 million to four billion per year), it’s a lot of dead birds.

Cooper’s and Sharp-shinned Hawks are attracted to feeders for the same reason as cats: the large concentration of potential prey. I know a hawk is around before I ever see one. There’s a sharp alarm call, a loud flutter of many wings as the small birds quickly disperse into cover, and then silence as the hawk settles above a feeder. The birds then begin chattering like anxious bystanders at an accident, waiting for the hawk to leave. The hawks aren’t often successful, but occasionally I find a small drift of junco or dove feathers in the orchard.

Dirty feeders can spread disease, as can the feces that inevitably build up under them. Salmonella, aspergillosis (mold) toxicity, finch eye disease (a type of conjunctivitis) and avian pox can spread through flocks and kill birds. I’ve only seen one sick bird in all these years, but I know there could be more.

On the plus side, sources such as the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife say that feeding can help individual birds, especially in the winter. I’m reminded of this every morning as I’m buzzed by over-wintering hummingbirds waiting for me to hang out the warm nectar. I like to think they appreciate it. (It’s a misconception that feeding affects migration; day length is the cue for birds to migrate. If they need to go, they’re going.)

Rampant logging and development around us has destroyed habitat at a rapid clip. To counter the destruction, here on our property we’ve been working on a large native plant and pond restoration project. It will provide more cover and food for the birds, but we still have work to do, and the plants need time to grow. This is another reason we feed.

For 17 years, we’ve hosted Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-capped and Chestnut-backed Chickadees, Mourning Doves, Steller’s Jays, Spotted Towhees, nuthatches, goldfinches, Purple Finches, House Finches, Varied Thrushes, Northern Flickers, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Pine Siskins, House Sparrows, and Evening and Black-headed Grosbeaks. This summer I even saw a Lazuli Bunting, a beautiful turquoise bird that is rare in this area.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology wants to know this stuff. Project FeederWatch is a citizen science project in which observers simply identify and count birds who show up at their winter feeders. The data are analyzed and combined with that of other observers all over the United States and Canada. Scientists can pinpoint birds at risk, which in turn can drive conservation and habitat restoration projects. It’s not necessary for “our” birds to justify their existence, but I like that they are part of a bigger picture.

So, from a most good, least harm standpoint, supplemental feeding seems like a reasonable thing to do. We’ve always kept the feeders scrupulously clean and move them around so that birds aren’t ingesting feces or moldy seed. The hawks come infrequently, but if they become a problem, experts say to pull the feeders for a few days so the hawks move on. And—much to the dogs’ dismay—we’ve blocked off the dog door so there will be no more unauthorized Oreo excursions.

For more about feeding wild birds, check out resources like these: