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Winter is approaching, and backyard bird feeders are busy.  But some of the 50 million North Americans who feed wild birds worry about whether it is really in the birds’ best interest.  Here are some answers to common concerns, based on a three year study conducted by Dr. Margaret C. Brittingham.

  • Do I need to feed birds continuously once I start?  It does not hurt to keep feeders filled, but it is not necessary.  Birds search for food all day long at multiple locations.

  • Will birds become overly dependent on feeder food?  Researchers found that birds depend primarily on natural food supplies.  For example, chickadees, common bird feeder visitors, get less than 25% of their energy requirements from feeders.  

  • Will feeding birds keep them from migrating?  It is doubtful.  Most birds base their migration patterns on changing day length.

  • Does bird feeding give introduced species an advantage?  Problem birds like house sparrows may overwhelm a bird feeder.  Do not offer seed that contains white proso millet or cracked corn. Do not feed bread. Try black oil sunflower seeds, nuts, and thistle instead.

  • Are cats a problem?  Cats learn to hide in bushes, and can readily jump four feet high, so keep feeders away from bushes, and put feeders more than four feet off the ground. (see article)

  • How can I keep squirrels out of my feeders? Keep the feeder at least six feet away from things squirrels can leap off of, such as overhanging branches and eaves, on isolated poles at least five feet off the ground. Use a baffle on the pole (e.g.,a PVC pipe or stovepipe that's 6 inches in diameter and 18 inches long, a special squirrel-deterring dish with a 15-inch diameter, or an inverted cone with at least a 13-inch diameter.) Protect feeders suspended from a horizontal wire by threading old records, compact discs, or plastic soda bottles on the wire on each side.  (see article)

  • Is disease a big problem at bird feeders?  Salmonellosis (an intestinal bacterial) and house finch conjunctivitis (an eye infection) can be promoted by accumulated feces, contact with other birds, or wet/moldy seed.  If you feed on the ground or on a platform, keep food dry, offer only what can be consumed in one day, and clean up debris.  If you use tube feeders, which are the best for avoiding disease, clean out any moldy seed/wet residue regularly.

  • How can I keep birds from flying into my windows?  Try window clings, or fruit-tree netting stretched taut several inches in front of the glass. 

Overall, feeding birds is entertaining and educational, and encourages people to become more familiar with and interested in wildlife.  It also probably improves the birds’ physical condition, especially during extremely cold or inclement weather.  

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Originally published in Our Town, 2005

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Last updated December 27, 2016

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