The Winter Banquet
Is backyard bird feeding helping or hurting? New research answers this
and many other questions. Plus, five feeders every yard should have.
By Stephen W. Kress
1. Ground-feeding table
This screen-bottomed tray sits several inches off the
ground and is useful for helping to keep grain and bird excrement from
coming in contact with each other. Some designs have covers to prevent
snow from accumulating over the seed; others are surrounded by wire mesh
to keep out squirrels and large birds such as crows and grackles. Place
the feeder in an open location, at least 10 feet from the nearest shrub,
to give birds a chance to flee in the event of a cat attack. Ground feeders
are especially favored by doves, juncos, sparrows, towhees, goldfinches,
A few decades ago, most of the birds that fed in North America's backyards
ate weed seeds and insects gleaned from crevices in tree bark. Now they're
presented with other feeding options. Nearly one-third of the adult population
of North America dispenses about a billion pounds of birdseed each year
as well as tons of suet and gourmet "seed cakes." What changes does this
largesse impose on our native birds?
There is surprisingly little research on the effects of feeders
on individual species, but the limited studies so far suggest that backyard
feeders are not creating a population of dependent wintering birds. For
example, researchers Margaret Brittingham and Stanley Temple from the University
of Wisconsin compared winter flocks of black-capped chickadees in two similar
woodlands in Wisconsin-one left natural and one equipped with feeders stocked
with sunflower seeds. After three years of study, they found that winter
survival rates were highest in the woods with the feeders -but only during
winters with prolonged periods of extreme cold. This suggests that in milder
climates, feeders may have little effect on the winter survival of chickadees.
The study also found that nesting populations in both woods were similar
the following spring.
Other research by Brittingham and Temple allays the concern that birds
may lose their natural talent for finding food and become dependent on
the easy life of taking food at feeders. To test the ability of chickadees
to switch back to natural food, they removed the feeders from a woodland
where birds had been fed for the previous 25 years and compared survival
rates with those of chickadees in a nearby woodland where there had been
no feeders. They documented that chickadees familiar with feeders were
able to switch back immediately to foraging for natural foods and survived
the winter as well as chickadees that lived where no feeders had been placed.
This was not surprising, since food from feeders had made up only 21 percent
of the birds' daily energy requirement in the previous two years. Clearly,
much more work needs to be conducted with many feeder-frequenting species
throughout their ranges. These studies, however, suggest that winter feeding
does not promote dependency.
Yet anyone who has conducted a Christmas Bird Count in northern
latitudes will testify that most wintering land birds are found around
bird feeders. That's not surprising, since feeders reduce the time it takes
to find food, and the average meal size (juicy sunflower kernels and suet)
is certainly larger than tiny weed seeds or wintering insects dug out of
tree bark. Feeders may also reduce the risk of predation, since feeder
birds spend less time foraging and have more time to watch for predators.
However, these benefits can be offset by more exposure to disease, increased
collisions with windows, and greater vulnerability to house cats that may
lurk near feeding stations.
Feeding birds is certainly not as helpful as improving backyard habitat
through landscaping, which provides food for a wider variety of birds,
as well as shelter, nesting places, and perches. But one thing is certain:
Feeding helps close the distance between wild birds and people.
Below, a look at some of the most frequently asked feeder questions,
plus recommendations for what you should have in your backyard.
Does feeding increase nest predation? Some critics of backyard
bird feeding argue that feeders bolster the populations of nest predators
such as blue jays and grackles, nest competitors such as European starlings
and house sparrows, and nest parasites such as brown-headed cowbirds. But
an analysis of the North American Breeding Bird Surveys conducted between
1966 and 1996 found that these species are actually declining-along with
many other grassland and thicket-nesting birds. In contrast, resident forest
birds, including black-capped chickadees, hairy woodpeckers, white-breasted
and red-breasted nuthatches, and tufted titmice, are on the increase. Most
likely, the regrowth of forest habitats and changing agricultural practices
are having far greater effects than backyard feeders.
Does feeding birds affect migration? Bird migration is triggered
by changes in day length, not the availability of food. Birds that frequent
feeders usually will not linger past their normal migration time. Stragglers
at feeders are generally birds that are injured or that lack migration
talents. Most of them will not survive the winter.
| 2. sunflower-seed tube feeders
If you are going to put out just one bird feeder, this
is the best choice. Be sure to select a model with metal ports around the
seed dispensers to protect the feeder from nibbling squirrels and house
sparrows. Hang the feeder at least five feet off the ground and position
it near a window, where you can enjoy the visitors. These feeders are especially
attractive to small birds such as chickadees, titmice, nuthatches, goldfinches,
siskins, and purple and house finches.
Will birds suffer if feeders go empty in the winter? In most
instances, "your" backyard birds have a feeding tour that includes many
neighborhood feeders as well as natural foods. Unless you provide enormous
amounts of food and live in an isolated location, it is likely the birds
that visit your feeders will not suffer if you leave your feeders empty
for a few weeks of winter vacation.
| 3. Suet Feeder
Suet is readily eaten by titmice, chickadees, nuthatches,
and woodpeckers. In addition to the regular suet-feeder visitors, wrens,
creepers, and warblers occasionally pick at these mixes. You can hang suet
chunks from a tree in an onion bag or a half-inch hardware-cloth basket,
or in a more durable cage feeder like the one shown here. You can also
make your own suet pudding and feeder. Suet puddings are made by grinding
and melting suet and adding seeds. (There is no evidence that suet puddings
are more attractive to birds than chunks of suet.) Pack peanut butter-cornmeal
blends (when you mix the peanut butter with cornmeal it not only stretches
the expensive peanut butter but also makes this sticky treat easier to
swallow) and suet puddings into the crevices of large pinecones or into
one-inch-diameter holes drilled into logs. Hang the pinecones and the logs
from poles near other feeders, from trees, or from a wire stretched between
trees. Avoid feeding suet when temperatures climb into the 80-degree range;
it turns rancid and drippy and may damage feathers.
What feeders should I use? Several feeders offering different
kinds of foods reduce waste and minimize congestion. Having multiple feeders
in different places will also attract a variety of species, since birds
typically feed at different levels. Woodpeckers, jays, nuthatches, chickadees,
and finches readily feed in trees, so these will visit higher-set feeders.
Likewise, cardinals, towhees, sparrows, and juncos usually feed near the
ground. Place feeders close to windows so that you can enjoy the action,
but beware of large picture windows that may result in collisions. Avoid
ground feeders if there is a risk that house cats will pounce from nearby
Can birds catch diseases at feeders? Diseases such as salmonella
can spread at feeders, especially where seeds and droppings mix. Ground-feeding
birds, such as doves and finches, are especially vulnerable. To reduce
the risk of disease, clean your feeders at least once a year with a 10
percent bleach solution-one part bleach to nine parts water.
| 4. Hopper Feeder
Hopper feeders provide dry storage for several pounds
of mixed seed, which tumbles forward on demand. Position hopper feeders
on a pole about five feet off the ground. Hopper feeders attract all of
the species tube feeders attract, as well as such larger birds as jays,
grackles, red-winged blackbirds, and cardinals.
How can I keep squirrels out of feeders? Avoid hanging feeders from
trees and eaves. Place them on isolated poles at least five feet off the
ground and as far as possible from your house and nearby trees and tall
shrubs, keeping in mind that squirrels can leap as far as six feet. Attach
to the feeder pole either an inverted cone with at least a 13-inch diameter,
a special squirrel-deterring dish with a 15-inch diameter, or a PVC pipe
or stovepipe that's 6 inches in diameter and 18 inches long. Protect feeders
suspended from a horizontal wire by threading old records, compact discs,
or plastic soda bottles on the wire on each side.
Is it okay to leave my cat outside as long as I put a bell on its
collar? There are about 100 million domestic and feral cats in North
America, and these kill about several hundred million birds each year.
Cats account for about 30 percent of birds killed at feeders. Cats are
such stealthy hunters that they can stalk and pounce on prey without jingling
the bell on their collar. By keeping your cat indoors, you'll not only
protect birds but also keep the cat safe from disease, traffic, and fights
with neighborhood pets and wildlife.
What do I do if a hawk starts killing birds at my feeder? It
is important to discourage hawks from dining on feeder birds, because both
predator and prey are vulnerable to accidental deaths resulting from window
collisions. If a hawk sets up a regular feeding routine at your feeders,
stop feeding long enough to let the smaller birds disperse. Soon the hawk
will leave to feed elsewhere.
| 5. Thistle Feeder
Especially designed to dispense niger seed, also known
as thistle seed -different from the prickly garden weed-these feeders typically
have tiny holes that make the seed available only to small-beaked finches
such as goldfinches, redpolls, and pine siskins. Thistle-seed-dispensing
bags are not recommended, since squirrels can easily tear holes in them
and waste this expensive seed. Hang your thistle feeder from a tree or
place it on a five-foot pole near other feeders, taking care to protect
it from squirrels with a special baffle.
How can I stop birds from crashing into my windows? A recent
study found this to be the most common cause of death associated with feeders
(about 1 to 10 deaths per building each year). Falcon silhouettes attached
to windows seem to have little effect. Fruit-tree netting stretched taut
several inches in front of the glass is the best approach.
Will birds stick to metal feeder parts during subfreezing temperatures?
Our fingers may stick to metal ice cube trays because moisture freezes
on contact with frigid metal. However, a bird's feet are covered with dry
scales, so there is no surface moisture to freeze to metal perches. Eyes,
tongues, and beaks are usually safe from exposure to metal feeder parts.
Rapid reflexes prevent the eye from coming in contact with foreign surfaces,
and the beak is protected by a horny, dry surface.
Ornithologist Stephen W. Kress's latest book is The Audubon Backyard
Birdwatcher: Bird Feeders and Bird Gardens (Thunder Bay; 1999). Award-winning
illustrator Maryjo Koch recently published The Nest: An Artist's Sketchbook
(Stewart, Tabori and Chang; 1999).
|Bird Feeding Goes High-Tech
In the age of 100-channel TV, watching the bird feeder has become a
high-tech pastime, with remote cameras built into feeders and a new generation
of Internet-savvy feeder watchers documenting the action in their backyards
and then downloading it.
Consider some of the new feeders: The Bird-Vu Wireless Audio/Video
Bird Feeding Station comes with a video camera and recording device that
beams all the action at your feeder right to your television, so "you can
enjoy the sights and sounds of the birds, up close and personal," the company
declares in its brochure (Nature Vision Inc.; 800-295-1546; $499.99). The
VR-100 BirdCam Camera, a comparable product except that it comes without
the feeder, also allows armchair birders to watch and listen to birds at
the feeder or even monitor a nest without disturbing its inhabitants (Video
Enterprises; 612-378-2577; $399). Both cameras connect to your VCR, making
it easy to permanently capture the image of a rare bird stopping by or
to create a video library of backyard visitors. Of course, there are less
expensive ways to get a better view. The Songview In-House Window Feeder
brings the birds into your home with a shatterproof, one-way mirror that
allows you to see them without their seeing you. Plus, there's a convenient
hole so you can fill the feeder with birdseed from inside the house (Duncraft;
What could be more appropriate in today's high-tech world than a scientific
survey powered by citizen feeder watchers and broadcast instantly over
the Internet? The Great Backyard Bird Count, held for the first time in
1998, welcomes participants to count the birds that visit their backyard,
park, or another designated area during a four-day period in February.
After they've tallied their birds, they can log onto BirdSource at www.birdsource.org
to record their findings, and the data will become immediately available
on the Internet. Because the count focuses on common species, birdwatchers
of all skill levels can join in the fun. Last year about 42,000 people
participated, including many schoolchildren and youth groups, says Sally
Conyne, the National Audubon Society's director of citizen science. This
year's event will be held February 18-21.
Birdsource also sponsors Project Feeder Watch, which since 1987
has invited people across the United States and Canada to make regular
counts of the birds that visit their feeders from November through April.
Log onto the Birdsource web site at www.birdsource.org to find out everything
you need to know to get started, from buying a feeder to selecting seed
to identifying birds. Feeder Watch provides useful information as well
as entertainment. Last year, for example, 10,000 Feeder Watchers and Great
Backyard Bird Counters documented huge flocks of American robins roaming
the northern states in the dead of winter. The reports prompted scientists
at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to analyze the Feeder Watch data, from
which they discovered a correlation between snowfall and robin distribution.
"Robins were not reported in areas where the snow cover was greater than
five inches," says Matthew McKown, Audubon's science coordinator.
"There are many questions that remain unanswered about the health of
bird populations," says John W. Fitzpatrick, the Louis Agassiz Fuertes
director of the Cornell lab. "The only way to monitor population-wide changes
is by harnessing the observations of bird enthusiasts across the continent."
Both Project Feeder Watch and the Great Backyard Bird Count have helped
document the expansion of the Eurasian collared-dove, a species that was
introduced to the Bahamas in the 1970s, migrated to Florida, and is slowly
but surely spreading across the country.
The technical staff at Cornell is still adding features to Birdsource.
Soon you'll be able to use your computer to track the expansion of the
Eurasian collared-dove yourself, or find out what birds you might see on
your vacation to southeast Arizona. "You will soon be able to click on
an interactive map of North America to find your own backyard and the birds
you'll find there," says McKown.
-Rene S. Ebersole
What's on the Menu
Sunflower seed: Black-oil seed is the preferred
seed of many small feeder birds, especially in northern latitudes. Striped
sunflower seed is also readily eaten, especially by large-beaked birds.
Hulled sunflower seed is consumed by the greatest variety of birds; it
attracts jays, red-bellied woodpeckers, finches, goldfinches, northern
cardinals, evening grosbeaks, pine grosbeaks, chickadees, titmice, nuthatches,
Millet: White millet is the favorite food
of most small-beaked ground-feeding birds; red millet is also readily eaten.
Millet attracts quail, doves, juncos, sparrows, towhees, cowbirds, and
Cracked corn: Medium cracked corn is about
as popular with ground-feeding birds as millet, but it is vulnerable to
rot, since the interior of the kernel readily soaks up moisture. Feed small
amounts, mixed with millet, on feeding tables or from watertight hopper
feeders. Avoid fine cracked corn, since it quickly turns to mush; coarse
cracked corn is too large for small-beaked birds. Cracked corn attracts
pheasants, quail, doves, crows, jays, sparrows, juncos, and towhees.
Milo, wheat, oats: These agricultural products
are frequently mixed into low-priced birdseed blends. Most birds discard
them in favor of other food, which leaves them to accumulate under feeders,
where they attract rodents. Milo is more often eaten by ground-feeding
birds in the Southwest. It attracts pheasants, quail, and doves.
Thistle (a.k.a. niger): A preferred food of
American goldfinches, lesser goldfinches, house finches, and common redpolls,
niger is sometimes called "black gold," because it costs about $1.50 per
pound. Do not confuse it with prickly thistle, a pink-flowered weed used
by goldfinches to line their nests. Niger works best in special thistle-seed
feeders with small holes that restrict the flow of the tiny black seeds.
The best feeders have holes below the purchase to permit feeding by goldfinches,
which can hang upside down (and thus excludes the more common house finch).
Suet and bird puddings (reconstituted suet
and seed): Peanut butter-cornmeal mixes (one part peanut butter, four parts
cornmeal, and one part vegetable shortening; good for winter and summer
feeding) or whole and crushed peanuts attract woodpeckers, jays, chickadees,
titmice, bushtits, nuthatches, brown creepers, wrens, kinglets, northern
mockingbirds, brown thrashers, starlings, and yellow-rumped and pine warblers.