How to - Wildlife

Is feeding for the birds?

Laura Langston

How to provide a safe, healthy environment to feed the feathered friends in your yard

As the weather cools and gardens die back, many Canadians hang feeders to help the birds make it through the winter. But some believe feeding is wrong because it encourages birds to stay around for the winter rather than migrate. Others, such as Vivian Patterson of Victoria, British Columbia, say fallen seed is messy and attracts squirrels, rats and raccoons. “And feeding creates a dependency I'm not comfortable with,” says Patterson.

But according to David Bird, professor of wildlife biology at Montreal's McGill University, feeders are just fast-food restaurants as far as birds are concerned, and don't create dependency at all. “The birds have plenty of food sources out there,” Bird says, “so [the choice] comes down to whether or not you enjoy it.”

Jim Wilson, a birder in Saint John, New Brunswick, says providing seeds is a wonderful way for people to study birds and get to know their habits in a non-intrusive manner. He suggests species that might attempt to overwinter—such as white-throated sparrows—are helped by feeding. Although no data exists to substantiate that, says Bird, two studies have shown that when blue jays and black-capped chickadees were fed through the winter, they were better able to survive and more productive in spring. He adds that feeding also encourages citizen participation in science programs such as the non-profit Project FeederWatch (managed by Bird Studies Canada and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology), which can provide useful information on bird movement and population levels. As to whether feeding affects migration, he says, “The birds are controlled by a hormonal urge far greater than the urge to eat at a fast-food place.”

For years, it's also been thought that providing food for our feathered friends contributes to disease because birds are in close contact at feeders and infections such as conjunctivitis could spread more readily. The professor himself used to wonder about that but says there's no evidence to indicate a relationship between feeding and disease. According to Cornell University experts, he explains, the birds are getting conjunctivitis before they come in contact with feeders.

He also disputes the claim that you make birds more vulnerable to cats or hawks. “Don't put the feeder near the bushes or anywhere it might be accessible to cats,” he advises. Platform feeders should be located two to three metres from shrubs to give the birds time to escape.

If you live in the city, you can feed sporadically without harm. But if you live in an isolated area and have been feeding steadily for a year, leaving for Florida during a cold snap might be a problem. Wean the birds off the feeders, gradually letting the food supply run out well before you leave.

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