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Birdfeeders: Should you Get Them or Get Rid of Them?

Updated: May 31, 2023

As I continue to work on projects to alter my backyard from mostly sterile turf grass into a thriving biome, I was recently at the hardware store to purchase some soaker hoses for some newly planted trees. While walking towards the cash register I was confronted with an aisle full of bird feeders and bird feed. Without having considered bird feeders before to help further assist my mission, the idea was enticing. As such, I ended up spending 15 plus minutes on an impromptu side quest standing in the bird feeder aisle scouring article after article on my phone to decide on whether bird feeders would be a good addition to fast track my mission to diversity into my backyard. Was it even a good thing to do? While I really want more birds, it feels a bit artificial. Is it a good long term strategy? What are the risks/rewards/benefits? So much to learn!


Standing in the aisle with my phone out reading as much as I could, I ultimately came to the conclusion that I needed more time to understand. So, I purchased my soaker hoses and left for home. I spent the next day in my free time doing a more in-depth research project before making any major decisions on the issue. This post is a result of that research. Hope it helps!



How Do Bird Feeders Impact Birds?

Below were the major potential issues that came up during my research and the various results from my in depth exploration.

birdfeeder

Do birds become overdependent on bird feeders thereby reducing their ability to survive without them should one day the feeders go empty?

While inconclusive on a global scale or across bird species, according to one recent study done by Oregon State University in June 2021, using black-capped chickadees as the test subject, it appears that no unnatural dependency occurred with human provided sustenance in the form of birdfeeders. However, the study concludes that there appears to be sufficient nutrient resources in the area where the bird feeders were placed meaning that the bird feeders were purely supplemental to a sufficient naturally occurring menu.


Another study done in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Ontario also found that black-capped chickadees had no difference in survival rates when bird feeders filled exclusively with sunflower seeds were taken away from them.

While promising, to me, many questions remain. How does this impact birds in areas with insufficient naturally provided nutrients in the surrounding environment? What if the feeders in the second study contained a more robust nutrient offering? Could feeders create an artificial population boom that is unsustainable if the feeders are suddenly left empty? Conversely, could feeders provide some relief for insects that birds prey upon?


How do bird feeders impact the health of birds that feed on them?

Disease Transmission: An Unseen Danger

Bird feeders facilitate the spread of diseases amongst bird populations. Their design often encourages unnatural clustering of various bird species, leading to a higher likelihood of disease transmission. Cases of avian conjunctivitis, trichomoniasis, salmonellosis, and many other disease transmissions have all been linked to bird feeders.


That being said, there are proven ways to help mitigate the risks of disease transmission that are outlined in various articles online such as here and here.


Overall Health, Safety, and Condition of Birds

In one study done from 2011 to 2014 in central Illinois, found that birds in forested sites with bird feeders placed in them were noticeably healthier with faster feather growth, higher antioxidant levels, and reduced stress when compared to birds without access to bird feeders. Conversely, they also noted that 8.3% of the birds showed signs of disease, but that overall the birds were in better condition.


Another article put out by the US Fish & Wildlife Service says that the biggest issues with bird feeders are disease, collisions and injury, and predation. This article argues that bird feeders are not essential to birds and pose more risk than reward.


Can providing a year-round food source inadvertently impact bird migration patterns, enticing some species to stay in areas they would typically leave in colder months?

The answer from renowned bird expert, Kenn Kaufman is that there should be no reason to worry. He mentions direct observations in the linked article that highlight that migratory instincts are hard-wired in birds despite full birdfeeders year round in some locations.


Another study out of the UK, however, indicates that bird feeders in the UK have indeed altered migrating patterns, and not only have they altered migration patterns, they've also been indicated in changing birds' morphology, having microevolutionary impacts.


What about bird feed? How is it produced? Is it ecologically sustainable? Is it robbing Piping Plover to pay Purple Martin?

My research into this topic at present is inconclusive.


Why Not Native Meadows?

The promotion of native flora in the form of local meadows presents an attractive alternative solution. This approach offers birds diverse, natural food sources, reducing their dependence on artificial feeders and promoting healthier, balanced diets and long-term population sustainability.


Native plants provide the perfect environment to host significantly more caterpillar species, a key food source for many birds. They also yield seeds and berries, providing a rich diet in different seasons. Estimating the exact number of birds a meadow can sustain per square foot is complex due to many variables, yet research found that in areas where native plants were less than 70% within a 164 foot radius, songbird populations could not be sustained.


For those with limited space, community cooperation could be the key. Working together to identify underused community areas like detention basins or simple grassy areas that are maintained but not utilized could provide the necessary space for these beneficial meadows. Transforming these spaces into native plant meadows could foster local bird populations and enhance community aesthetics.


Conclusion: To Meadow, Indeed

While bird feeders may bring immediate enjoyment and offer some benefits, for me personally, the ongoing maintenance and dependency on me and my family to provide an adequate and safe environment for the birds and bird feed merit consideration. While a birdfeeder may be a stop gap option, I would ultimately prefer to dedicate a place for a small meadow in my yard instead. The only reason for me to consider it at this point, would be to familiarize songbirds with my location so they will immediately discover the meadow soon to come, but that likely isn't even necessary.


Ultimately, I put myself as neutral when it comes to bird feeders at this point. If they are thoughtfully placed and well maintained, then there appears to be mutual net benefits for both birds and people without creating any major long-term disadvantages.


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