Bringing nature to your doorstep has never been easier, with an ever-expanding choice of feeder styles, food options to suit different habitats and budgets and a wealth of advice and resources about positioning and cleaning feeders.
We’ll be taking a look at the do’s and don'ts of bird feeding, so read on if you’d like to learn how to attract a stream of healthy and satisfied diners to your yard.
A 2019 survey discovered that more than 57 million households in the United States regularly fed birds in their yard, spending in excess of $4 billion each year on seed, grains, suet and nuts to keep their feathered friends happy and well fed.
In the UK, up to half of all households feed birds in their gardens or on their balconies, and even more, say they often feed wild ducks and geese at public lakes and parks.
Offering birds safe and suitable foods from clean feeders can quite literally mean the difference between life and death for some birds. In the harshest winter conditions where natural foods are far harder to access, if they exist at all, bird feeders and bowls of fresh drinking water offer an important lifeline.
By establishing a regular feeding routine when naturally available food resources are in short supply, birds expend less energy searching for food and stand an improved chance of survival.
Pictured: A female Northern Cardinal. A 2019 survey discovered that more than 57 million households in the United States regularly fed birds in their yard
While the benefits to backyard birds of being provided with readily available food sources are clear and obvious, it’s true to say that there are also benefits enjoyed by the humans that supply the food too.
Knowing you’ve played a part in ensuring the survival of the birds that visit your feeders is a great feeling. And watching your flock of visitors change and grow on a daily basis is a source of fascination.
Read on to learn about the mutual benefits of regularly feeding birds in your backyard.
During harsh winters or in the breeding season, where there may suddenly be the pressure of multiple extra mouths to feed, birds may be particularly needy of additional support when searching for food, and a suitably stocked feeder may be a lifeline.
By regularly topping up supplies of seeds, nuts, fruit, suet and fresh water, word will soon get out among neighborhood birds, and there could soon be a steady stream of birds taking advantage of your acts of kindness.
Birds that otherwise may not have been able to forage for sufficient natural foods to feed themselves when grounds are frozen, tree crops fail or there are insufficient berries, seeds or insects to feed their young, will benefit from having food provided without suffering the additional stress of using up valuable energy to search for nonexistent resources.
Feeding backyard birds can also bring mutual benefits and pleasure to the humans that supply the food, as well as the birds that visit. It can be extremely rewarding to know that your actions are going some way to promoting the health and continued survival of your visitors.
The arrival of new species or unusual birds is often a highlight, but also recognizing regulars and starting to observe patterns in their behavior can also be a source of great enjoyment.
Pictured: A Starling feeding on seeds during the harsh winter
When feeding birds in your yard, there are some key considerations to bear in mind to ensure the food you offer isn’t actually doing more harm than good.
By following a few basic guidelines, you’ll be likely to have a healthy flock of regular visitors at or under your bird table in no time, so keep reading to discover just how to keep your feeders in optimum condition.
There is no ‘one-food-suits-all’ solution when it comes to feeding birds. Feeding preferences vary from species to species, not only with the types of foods eaten but also for the style and location of the feeder.
Some species are primarily ground feeders, including sparrows, pigeons and doves, grackles, robins and thrushes. These species will also often take food from a platform feeder or bird table, but are not acrobatic enough to use hanging feeders.
Many small birds including finches, tits and chickadees will use hanging tube feeders, strings of fat balls or coconut halves filled with suet mix. Hopper-style feeders are popular with cardinals, grosbeaks, finches and buntings, and offer the benefit of a more stable, sheltered feeding spot.
The variety of foods offered is also an important factor in attracting visiting birds, and it’s recommended to offer a range of different seeds, grains, fruits and suet mixes to avoid birds becoming too reliant on one type, risking an unbalanced diet with insufficient nutrients.
Pictured: A Blue Tit. Feeding preferences vary from species to species, not only with the types of foods eaten but also for the style and location of the feeder
Suitable commercial mixes may include any of the following ingredients: flaked maize, sunflower seeds and peanut granules. Smaller seeds, including millet, will attract smaller birds, including sparrows, finches and buntings, as well as collared doves. Millet is popular with towhees, juncos, cardinals and blackbirds.
One seed almost guaranteed to bring all the birds to your yard is the sunflower heart, a favorite of many species, is packed with protein and is a great source of energy. They are especially useful to offer during the summer molting season and ahead of fall migration. Suet and nuts are also high-energy food, and a welcome sight in any backyard in winter. Sunflower and safflower seeds are rich in oils and fats.
Homemade fat balls or suet cakes are another ideal winter offering, with melted fat poured over seeds, fruit, oats, insects and nuts to create a nutritious and quick energy fix. In summer, it’s best to avoid these though, as they can quickly melt and become rancid in the heat.
Dried mealworms are another popular offering, and will attract robins, wagtails, bluebirds, nuthatches and wrens. Soaking them in water before adding to a bird table or scattering them on a lawn makes them easier for younger birds to swallow, and has the added benefit of helping them to stay hydrated.
Niger seeds are particular favorites of goldfinches, siskins and redpolls, and should be offered in a specially designed feeder with a narrow opening.
Niger seeds are particular favorites of Goldfinches (pictured), Siskins and Redpolls, and should be offered in a specially designed feeder with a narrow opening
Bird feeders should be cleaned regularly to ensure that they are free from bacteria and pose no risk of transmitting infections between different birds. Feeders should be checked regularly, and any uneaten food should be thrown away if it shows signs of becoming moldy, spoiled or damp.
Any signs of damage that may cause injuries, such as sharp edges or loose covers that may cause accidental entanglement should also be replaced or repaired.
To reduce the risk of illness, it’s recommended that feeders should be washed every couple of weeks at the very least. For hummingbird feeders, which can get particularly sticky, more frequent cleaning is needed. Feeders should be rinsed with hot water and left to dry naturally in the air.
Bird baths and water bowls should be changed daily, and cleaned if necessary before being refilled, as there is a high risk of contamination from droppings.
It’s best, if possible, to clean anything that comes into contact with birds outside, and use a low-concentration detergent rather than a strong bleach or anything heavily scented with chemicals. And it’s a bit of a no-brainer, but make sure you wash your hands afterwards, too.
It’s also advised to clear the area below your feeders from any leftover or spilt seeds to discourage rats from becoming regular visitors too.
Pictured: An American Robin. Bird baths and water bowls should be changed daily, and cleaned if necessary before being refilled
Caution should always be taken when feeding birds to make sure that you’re offering appropriate foods according to the time of year and in general to ensure you’re not unwittingly putting your feathered visitors at risk.
There’s no hard and fast rule that says you should stop feeding birds in summer, and support may be welcomed when there are nestlings to feed.
However, some important ‘don’ts’ exist, so if you’d like to discover more, then please keep reading!
Foods that are high in sugar or salt content or contain dairy, caffeine or alcohol should never be offered to birds. Cooked oats should also be avoided as they become glutenous and can harden around a bird’s beak.
Certain urban birds have become increasingly reliant on unsuitable scraps, such as fast food leftovers. Crows are known to be partial to fries, burgers and other scavenged processed foods, but these can lead to obesity, heart conditions and stunted growth.
Birds that become too reliant on unsuitable foods can miss out on vital nutrients and vitamins. In the past, it was common to feed bread to birds, although doing this too often is now discouraged as birds run the risk of stocking up on empty calories and not consuming enough of the nutrients they require to remain in good health.
Some foods should also be avoided because of the practical risks they cause, including whole peanuts during the breeding season, as they may pose a choking hazard to young birds. Similarly, dried dog or cat biscuits do have some nutritional value but may be too large for birds to swallow safely.
Pictured: A European Robin. Caution should always be taken when feeding birds to make sure that you’re offering appropriate foods according to the time of year
Birds time their breeding period to coincide with the peak seasons for insects, earthworms and seeds or fruit which provide energy when incubating or raising young.
During this time, additional food may be beneficial to busy parents as they make repeated foraging trips to keep up with the demands of feeding their young. With unpredictable weather, the availability of natural resources cannot be guaranteed, so it’s useful to monitor the situation and increase food stocks if necessary.
Some researchers argue that allowing birds to become too reliant on food provided by humans may lead to dependency and cause birds to lose their natural foraging instinct if they are not well-practised in finding their own foods.
Other fears include if a householder were to suddenly stop offering food for some reason, e.g. a vacation or house move, then birds may suffer from starvation due to the sudden interruption of their food supply.
In certain circumstances, feeding birds is not advised as it may be more detrimental to the survival of a species. As dramatic as this sounds, there’s evidence that by allowing birds to become reliant on human-supplied food can disrupt their natural rhythms, leaving them at risk of getting out of sync with the typical seasonal patterns and behaviors of their species.
One example is feeding owls with store-bought rodents. This can lead them to associate humans with food, which may bring about a bunch of extra problems, including putting them at risk from traffic collisions due to their being tempted to be in the wrong place at the wrong time by the offer of an easy and effortless snack.
Pictured: A Barn Owl hunting in natural habitat
One clear motivation for providing well-stocked feeders in a backyard is the knowledge that your actions are directly helping these birds to survive. Learn more about how responsible bird feeding practices can contribute to the wider picture of conservation below.
Responsible bird feeding can play a hugely significant role in wildlife conservation and the survival of species. This is particularly relevant when natural food sources are in short supply due to harsh weather or crop failure.
Without additional supplementary foods offered in backyards and gardens and on balconies and lawns, more competition would exist for any existing foods in the wild, causing possible stress and starvation between hungry birds struggling to survive.
Keeping feeders regularly cleaned and in a good state of repair reduces the risk of injury, infection, disease and transfer of parasites between species. Offering a wide range of foods is important for biodiversity, providing opportunities for different species to coexist and forage together.
Staying a respectful distance away from feeding birds is of the utmost importance, and birds should not be disturbed or approached when foraging in your yard where possible. It’s also advised to avoid attempting to tame or hand-feed birds that visit your feeders, as this can have a negative impact.
For example, one bird species known to be relatively easy to attract to take food from your hand is the Florida scrub-jay, which can be trained to readily take peanuts from humans.
Research showed that hand-fed scrub-jays adapted to breed earlier in the season than those with no human interaction. Early-born birds hatched out of sync with the peak period of caterpillars that chicks depend on for food, leading to starvation and malnutrition. Legislation has since been introduced, making it an offense to hand-feed scrub-jays without a license.
Pictured: A Florida Scrub-jay. Legislation has since been introduced, making it an offense to hand-feed scrub-jays without a license
Bird feeding is a wonderfully simple way to engage with nature on your doorstep, allowing you to observe the fascinating behavior of birds visiting your feeders and to learn so much about their interactions, preferences and habits.
Knowing that, thanks to your help, these birds enjoy an improved chance of surviving when natural foods are in short supply is another great reason to keep topping up those feeders or stocking up on seed.
Ensuring your feeders are clean and filled with suitable foods and freshwater is provided daily are perhaps the biggest direct contributions you can make to bird conservation efforts in your local neighborhood.
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