On not feeding the birds

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Ripening serviceberries in June: natural bird food

{This article originally appeared as a “Backyard Environmentalist” column in the Glen Rock Gazette in 2009}

When people who discover the lengths I have gone to welcome birds and other wildlife to my backyard, they assume that I put out feeders full of seeds and suet. After all, if you love wild creatures, why not feed them?

I do not feed the birds or other animals directly, although I have planted and continue to plant native shrubs, flowering plants, and grasses that serve as natural food and cover. As a result, my yard is full of birds and other wildlife all year long. After a great deal of research I took down my birdfeeders several years ago, and I strongly believe that feeding wildlife is harmful to the animals that eat the food, to humans, and to the environment in general. I’ll explain just a few of my reasons for this statement.

Feeding encourages nonnative species Time and time again, people who feed birds complain about the proliferation of pesky nonnative birds, such as European starlings, pigeons, and sparrows, at their feeders. I see it myself—one of my neighbors, who has a feeder, is troubled by large numbers of pigeons, while the goldfinches and cardinals fly right past his yard and flock to mine. By putting up feeders, you encourage these alien species that outcompete native birds for food and nest space. You also attract rats! By planting native plants and encouraging beneficial insects, you encourage native birds.

Feeding spreads disease Aside from the problem caused by molds and bacteria that grow in feeders (hummingbird feeders are a prime example of this), the congregating of large numbers of birds at feeders has been shown to spread disease. The house finch, a North American bird that looks like a sparrow daubed with raspberry juice, has seen its population plummet because of a devastating eye disease that causes blindness. This disease spread by the close proximity of birds at feeders. If you watch birds feeding from a natural food source, you will see that they almost never come into very close contact, as they are forced to do at a feeder.

Feeding puts populations at risk The presence of artificial food sources can cause unnatural increases in populations of certain species, often in areas to which they are not native. For example, mockingbirds now live year-round in this area, whereas they formerly migrated south for the winter. This change in behavior can cause a species to become completely dependent on food provided by humans; if the food is suddenly withdrawn (because you move away or you go away for a week and your feeders remain empty), populations that have become dependent may not survive. If, on the other hand, you provide natural food sources, those sources will remain whether you are here or not.

Another problem is lack of natural predator species in suburban areas. We have lots of raccoons, woodchucks, and rabbits but very few hawks, foxes, or coyotes. In nature, predators control the population of prey, keeping it from rising out of control. Without predators, small mammals breed uncontrolled. As their populations rise, they run out of available food, running the risk of starving to death or of being killed by humans as they raid our gardens. Many people feed these small mammals—they’re cute and furry, after all. However, this only makes the vicious cycle more vicious, causing populations to rise out of control faster and to crash more cruelly.

Feeding concentrates prey and thus encourages predators  Predators, such as housecats and hawks, are smart. If prey species congregate in one specific area, predators will come around for an easy kill. Because feeders are often placed out in the open, without nearby cover, birds don’t have a chance. When I had a feeder in my yard, a neighbor’s cat was always lurking, no matter how many times I drove it away. Now, although there are many, many birds around, I almost never see a cat. In nature, predators have to work hard for a meal. When we make things easy for them, we tilt the balance of nature in their favor.

Feeding does not feed all the birds  Each bird species has a very specific feeding strategies. Some feed on branches, some on branch tips, some feed only on the ground. Hanging feeders and even platform feeders work primarily for perching birds. Ground feeding birds, such as robins, cannot use them. Watch a mixed-species foraging flock at work on a planting of native perennials and grasses: some cling to the stalks, some work the tops of the plants, some sift through the leaf litter on the ground. You’ll immediately understand the importance of natural food sources.

Feeding endangers humans Many people feed not only birds but also small mammals like raccoons. However, all warm-blooded animals are potential sources of rabies, and if you are in contact with wild animals, you are putting yourself and your children at risk. Any contact with an infected animal can result in rabies—you don’t have to get bitten. It’s just not worth the risk.

Feeding tilts the balance of nature  This is really the overriding argument against feeders, in my opinion. Nature is so complicated, predators and prey live in such a delicate, precarious balance, that almost anything we do has unintended consequences. We just don’t know enough about even our local ecology to justify intervention. For example, many people who feed birds say that if they didn’t, the birds would die in the winter. Yes, some probably would, but that’s natural. It’s natural for animal and plant populations to fluctuate seasonally and over periods of years; that’s how balance is achieved. It’s natural for weak animals to die during a hard winter; that’s how nature ensures that the only the strongest will survive to breed in the spring. By stepping in and altering this balance to suit ourselves, we help the weak to survive and we artificially tilt the balance of nature. If, however, we encourage wildlife by planting native species they need for food, we help maintain or reinstate that natural balance.

Ecology is a fascinating, bewildering study. It humbles me, because I’m continually discovering how much we don’t yet know! But the more I learn, the surer I become that the only way to improve our environment is to intervene less and, in every thing we do, to aim to restore the balance of nature. And feeding wildlife simply doesn’t do that.

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A winter bird buffet of coralberry and native perennials. A mixed border of native plants feeds birds year round.

 

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