Feeding Birds--The Good and the Bad

Feeding birds is a favorite global pastime in developed nations. Is it good for the birds though?

Is it a classic case of, “everyone is doing it so it must be okay”? Feeding birds is one of the most ubiquitous engagements humans have with wildlife. Over 57 million households, 40 percent of Americans (over 75 percent of Brits) feed birds. Most wildlife refuges, public or private, have feeder stations, and some famous ones, like Patagonia, Arizona’s Paton’s Hummingbird Sanctuary and Green Valley, Arizona, Madera Canyon’s Santa Rita Lodge, have dozens of feeders of many types.

There is concern though, that feeding birds can be counter-productive, doing more harm than good. I spent hours researching this topic and have come to some conclusions of my own.

First, the good aspects of bird feeding. There isn’t a lot of hard science on this topic but the handful of studies out there seem to indicate that winter feeding of birds generally increases survival, nesting success and survival of nestlings. I stress that this is winter feeding when food can be in short supply and cold temperatures increase the need for food to stoke internal fires. Feeding during summer months is unnecessary for survival in most instances.

Bird feeding is definitely good for people. Personally, I spend breakfast time enjoying the birds at my feeder. Millions of other people do so as well, providing a connection to nature even in cities and suburbs. It is also big business—Americans spend over $4 billion annually on bird seed alone.

Disease and poisoning are the scariest part of bird feeding. An outbreak of salmonella poisoning has been plaguing songbirds this year, starting on the west coast. As of last week, it had moved as far as western Idaho. Feeding stations are suspected as the main culprit in spreading this outbreak.

In the 1990’s house finches in the eastern U.S. were decimated by a disease that experts claimed was spread at feeding stations. Something similar occurred with greenfinches in Great Britain between 2006 and 2016.

Feeding has several negative human-caused elements that are easily controlled. House cats and window strikes claim millions of birds each year. This can negate the benefits of feeding very quickly. Keeping cats indoors and marking up windows so birds aren’t fooled by reflections are essential if you are going to feed.

Occasionally, feeding birds can alter their behavior to their detriment. The endangered Florida scrub jay, for instance, is a real pushover for peanuts. This rich food helps them to nest earlier than normal. That isn’t good because the chicks hatch before the caterpillars that they depend upon are available and the chicks starve.

Spanish white storks have taken so thoroughly to their landfill diets that they have forgotten to migrate. In a complex interaction, this means that sick birds aren’t subjected to the rigors of migration that would normally eliminate them from the population and they constantly expose their peers to their illnesses.

One researcher summed up feeding this way; “Feeders can bring unexpected species together and bring birds together more frequently than normal, creating ideal conditions for parasites and other contaminates.”

Putting out small amounts of seed daily rather than filling large hoppers, dedicating individual feeders for specific seed types (to help separate species), cleaning feeders weekly with a solution of 10 percent (non-chlorinated if possible) bleach, routinely cleaning up spilled seed, hulls and droppings and ensuring your feed is high quality and fresh all reduce the risk of disease and poisoning.

Humans have changed foraging opportunities so much that we may be hindering survival of some birds long-term. I see enough benefits to winter feeding of songbirds that I will continue to do so, albeit with some added precautions, just in case I can help re-establish the balance in some small way.


Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from Nature-track.com!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho