On not feeding the birds

This afternoon I spent a pleasant quarter hour watching a small flock of sparrows–I think they’re chipping sparrows, but bird identification is not one of my strengths as a naturalist–feeding in the perennial border right outside my office window. I allow the fallen leaves to remain in place in the flower beds all winter, and they protect lots of overwintering invertebrates and seeds. The tiny sparrows were energetically grabbing and tossing up bunches of leaves to uncover the food below. I am proud to say that I provide these noisy, active creatures with abundant winter food. Throughout the winter, my garden routinely hosts mixed-species foraging flocks of native sparrows, juncos, chickadees, downy woodpeckers, nuthatches, and kinglets. But I don’t attract them by putting up feeders.

I don’t feed birds or other animals directly, although I 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. After a great deal of research I took down my birdfeeders about a decade 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. (And 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 dabbed with raspberry juice, had its population plummet because of a devastating eye disease that causes blindness. This disease is 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.

Feeding concentrates prey and 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. Now, although there are many, many birds around, I almost never see cats. 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 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 everything 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 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 the birds simply doesn’t accomplish that.