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Sunday, February 19, 2017

Mouths to feed

On a cold, snowy winter’s day, it’s lovely to see wild birds in the backyard. Last week I spotted nuthatches and a woodpecker at the suet feeder, chickadees hopping around the big hydrangea vine, and a female cardinal scoping out territory for this spring’s nest. Although my garden doesn’t attract rare, shy birds (or if it does, I don’t know enough to spot them), I like the idea of providing food and habitat on my suburban lot.

Thistle seed attracts small birds, including goldfinches

So it was a jolt to read in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s magazine that “. . . although feeding birds may not be harmful to the species that use feeders the most, it also isn’t helpful to the species that most need our help.” Emma Grieg, leader of the lab’s Project FeederWatch, goes on rather condescendingly, “But don’t take down your feeders in despair. One of the most important impacts of feeding birds is that it allows people to feel connected to the natural world.”

    Wait a minute—harmful? Research by Grieg and Cornell Lab Citizen Science Director David Bonter assesses the balance between positive impacts of bird feeders—supporting populations of regular feeder guests such as northern cardinals—and negatives, such as “disease transmission, deaths from window strikes (when birds fly away from a feeder and into a house), and increased predation pressures," as when hawks eat bird feeder birds.

It's squirrel-proof, but is this feeder bad for backyard birds?

    I’m one of more than 50 million North Americans who feed backyard birds. I have a tube feeder for mixed seed, a hopper feeder for sunflower seeds, a thistle feeder, and the suet feeder for woodpeckers and nuthatches that like to eat hanging upside down. Last fall I bought ten 20-pound bags of birdseed at Mass Audubon Broadmoor Sanctuary’s Bird Seed Day Fundraiser. 

Blue jays are fun to have around

     I’d never thought there could be anything negative about bird feeders until I read George Adams’ book Gardening for the Birds: How to Create a Bird-Friendly Backyard.

     In addition to the potential harm noted by the Cornell researchers, Adams points out that birds evolved to forage for seeds and insects on their own. If they come to depend on food from our feeders, they could go hungry when we leave town. Also, we may be changing population dynamics, causing booms in feeder-reliant species, including nonnatives such as European sparrows.

Flocks of European sparrows can grab all the available food--Hopkinton News photo

     Is feeding birds just a feel-good activity, another ham-handed human intervention that gets in the way of natural processes instead of helping?  The Cornell article presumes that our goal in feeding birds is to save endangered species. 

     That’s one goal, but I have others. In winter, I’m proud to feed ten native species on Mass Audubon’s list of common backyard birds of the Northeast. I think they deserve to flourish, even if they’re not rare, and I know they’re contributing to the health of my garden ecosystem. 

Downy woodpecker hunting for insects

       To encourage birds to do their part in the garden by eating insects, I’ve stopped putting out seed in summer. I just need to get in the habit of washing those feeders more often.

Feeders need cleaning so they won't transmit diseases between birds

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