To feed or not to feed…that is the question?


Do birds need food assistance? Or is there enough available food to keep the birds satisfied throughout the winter? In 2018, U.S. purchases made up $4 billion of the global $5-billion to $6-billion bird food market. That’s a whole lot of seed. As the pandemic surged the past two years so did bird seed sales. As we were confined to our homes, according to the National Audubon Society the demand for their backyard feeders rose substantially.

Scientific American examined published studies to determine the impact of this increased demand for bird food. What they discovered was troubling: “… bird feeding could be reshaping some local environments—squeezing out some of the bird species such feeding is supposed to help.”

Providing supplemental food to aid wildlife fosters a connection with nature and is thought to help wildlife. However, providing additional food resources may have unforeseen consequences. One is disease transmission. In England, birds visiting shared feeders may develop a parasitic infection—trichomoniasis. In the U.S., trichomoniasis and salmonella outbreaks are associated with dirty feeders that can result in bird deaths.

Densely populated England is one of the most dedicated bird-feeding cultures in the world. Studies have found adaptive bird generalists tend to expand their populations and bird populations found in the wild are diminished when competition for nesting areas increases.

Birds are not the only ones eating the provided seeds. Bird feeders may offer opportunities to other species like rodents and deer, which can cause other unknown effects.

The question of how bird feeding impacts ecosystems needs more research. Until that is done, homeowners can take action to connect with and aid native birds. Bird feeding does have some benefits. It encourages people in developed areas to engage with nature. Supplemental feeding aids threatened species.

Providing a clean source of water year-round can attract birds to your yard.

To reduce risk, bird feeders should be cleaned regularly (every two weeks suggested) with a diluted bleach solution. Leave the leaves unraked or parts of the lawn unmowed and create a brush pile for native birds and insects. Wildlife gardening— native wildflowers and bushes that produce nectar, fruits and seeds will attract birds. Native grasses and flowers in container gardens also provide nutrition. Available water will also attract birds to your landscape.

Natural food sources may not attract as many birds to your property but it is good for birds’ diets and also good for the environment. Native plants provide a source of food that is very different from a supplemental feeding sold to consumers to help birds.

The supplemental feeding industry is a multibillion-dollar industry and that merits examination in terms of its impact on the environment.