I have feeders hanging outside a large dining room window, and when I'm sitting there eating my breakfast, the finches and sparrows and cardinals -- occasionally, even a large red-bellied woodpecker -- are eating, too.
They queue up in a nearby holly tree, and then swoop in. The feeders are just far enough away from the glass that I can still see them, but they don't smack into the window. It's unending fun to watch them. And it's interested me enough that I've gone on to learn more about birds and take up birdwatching.
But is it good for the birds, or am I providing some sort of artificial world that can't last?
Joe Kosack, a wildlife education specialist with the Pennsylvania Game Commission, recently took up the question. As usual, he wrote a great story, so I'll post here in its entirety.
By Joe Kosack
HARRISBURG – Feeding songbirds in winter has been an American pastime at least since the days of Henry David Thoreau, who wrote about feeding birds at Walden Pond in the latter 1840s. But Americans have enjoyed watching songbirds clean up our table-scraps and waste grains even before then.
Thoreau did it to get closer to subjects he enjoyed watching and wanted to know about. Today, many people – particularly those 25 and older – have similar interests. More than 55.5 million Americans feed wild birds and a third of Pennsylvanians observe wildlife around their homes, according to a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey. More importantly, they spend millions of dollars on these pastimes. Feeding birds is no longer a cute thing that some people do; it’s a full-fledged American industry that influences our economy.
But is inviting songbirds – and indirectly, other wildlife – closer to our homes a smart move? Are we compelling wild birds to become more dependent on or unnecessarily comfortable with people? Does feeding birds in winter create health risks for songbirds at a time of unquestioned vulnerability?
“It is important to get past the, ‘Is it ok to feed birds?’ question before engaging in any discussion about bird feeding,” noted Doug Gross, Pennsylvania Game Commission biologist. “Of course, our preferred answer to the question is for folks to plant vegetation beneficial to birds before hanging feeders. Birds can never have too much good habitat.
“But we recognize not everyone has an acre or two, or simply some backyard space, to groom into wild bird-preferred habitat. In these instances, we try to ensure bird-feeding enthusiasts place their feeders in good locations, keep them clean and fill them with seeds capable of attracting the birds they want to see.”
It all seems easy enough, but there really is a lot to consider before opening a winter bird feeding station on your property. For instance, feeders should be placed near cover to shield songbirds from avian predators, but at least 15 feet away from windows and groundcover roaming cats can hide in or behind.
A bird coming to a feeding station in winter usually enters a heightened risk area because the chatter and commotion created by birds at feeders attracts cats on the ground and sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks from the air. Of course, most people who feed songbirds aren’t in it to set the table for hawks and cats. So give some thought to feeder placement. Wild birds are counting on you!
Although many people don’t realize it, windows can be as deadly to songbirds as predators because birds don’t see glass. Therefore, it is important to move feeders away from windows.
“Millions of birds die annually from window strikes as they leave or flee feeders when startled,” Gross explained. “They fly unsuspectingly into the reflection of escape cover or open skies on windows, and when they do, they often hit with such force that they cannot survive the impact.”
After sorting out where your feeder should be placed, the next step is to identify which species you want to attract and then select the feeder and seeds/food you’ll use to attract them. The three easiest ways to attract the greatest number of birds involve using are cylindrical feeders – filled with black-oil sunflower seeds and/or thistle seeds – and suet feeders, and ground feeding with corn, millet and black-oil sunflower seeds. This three-way approach will make just about any yard a food court for birds, so long as there is some nearby cover for birds to use for perching and seed-cracking.
“It’s always a good strategy to use a diversity of foods,” said Gross. “It complements the dietary diversity of most wild birds. After seeds, some great choices are raisins for Carolina wrens and thrushes; peanuts for blue jays, cardinals and nuthatches; even peanut-butter smeared in tree crevices. A heated birdbath also attracts birds; not because it’s heated, but rather because it offers accessible water.”
Although some birds may become dependent on feeders, it likely won’t be the only stop on their daily foraging route. Still, if you commit to feeding birds in winter, it’s best not to stop in the middle of winter.
“When your feeder becomes a part of a bird’s routine, the seeds it retrieves become part of its daily resources that fuel its body’s needs,” Gross said. “Once you begin winter feeding, it is important to remember that those foods you’ve begun to provide help balance birds intense daily demands for energy to endure frigid winter nights and body heat-robbing winds.”
Equally important is keeping your feeders clean so birds don’t risk contracting avian conjunctivitis, salmonella, trichomoniasis, aspergillosis (fungal infection) and avian pox. Most of these diseases arise from birds contaminating seeds and the feeder through droppings and secretions, and from fungus growing on damp seeds. To learn more about the diseases, visit the Game Commission’s Wildlife Disease Reference Library, housed on the agency’s website (www.pgc.state.pa.us) under “Wildlife” in the menu bar at the top of the homepage.
The Game Commission recommends first cleaning bird feeders with soup soap and water followed by a solution that is one part of household bleach and nine parts of warm water. Rinse your feeder thoroughly and wait until it is completely dry before refilling it with seeds and placing it outdoors. If you don’t want to work with bleach, which is the most effective cleanser, another cleaning solution can be made by mixing one part white vinegar to four parts warm water, but this solution will not kill viruses. If you’re not seeing sick-looking birds at your feeder, cleaning it once or twice a month is sufficient. Increase the frequency to once a week if trouble shows.
“Another way to reduce the spread of disease at your feeders is to offer seeds in different areas and at multiple heights,” Gross explained. “Spread out your feeding sites to reduce crowding. Hang feeders at different heights. Ground feed away from elevated feeders. This feeder approach, combined with regular feeder cleaning, will help the birds visiting your yard remain healthy.
Whenever you feed songbirds, there’s always the potential to lure into your yard – and sometimes your house – critters you’d rather stay away. The usual list of potential “unwanteds” includes black bears, deer, raccoons, squirrels and field mice. Black bears had a rough fall – acorn crop failure – and some may be more active this winter than usual. Suet and black-oil sunflower seeds would be very appealing to them. Raccoons also are partial to suet. Deer, on the other hand, can be drawn by shelled corn. So can field mice. Squirrels come to just about everything you offer.
When feeding wild birds in your yard, you really can’t pick your guests. Your offering becomes an open invitation to all foraging animals that happen upon it. And sometimes they decide to take up residence with you. Flying squirrels, field mice and raccoons that feed on your bird offerings sometimes look for and find hideouts in your house or garage to hold them over when they’re not feeding at your bird buffet. And once they get in, you have to get them out, find out how they got in and then seal the access point. In agricultural and suburban areas, this problem can be compounded by Norway rats.
Other unwanted guests include starlings, house finches and house sparrows. Starlings, in particular, can really crowd feeders, and aggressively chase away other songbirds you may want to see. Corn and suet seem to be starling magnets, so pull in the corn when they start showing up and use suet feeders that require users to cling and feed, which starlings can’t do well.
Of course, the alternative to putting out a feeder is to plant trees and shrubs that offer songbirds and other wildlife food and cover in winter. But, as now is not planting season, the Game Commission will be offering a variety of wildlife-friendly tree and shrub seedlings in its annual seedling sale. In mid-January, watch the agency’s website for information on how to select and order seedlings from the agency’s Howard Nursery.