Saturday, August 3, 2019

Should I feed birds all year round? What 5 experts say

Many people feed birds in winter. Some keep it up all year. But then the question arises, should you?

Should you feed birds all year round? If not, what time of year do you feed birds? And when should you take down your bird feeders? Here's what the experts say:
  • Audubon Society: Feed the birds all year, but clean your feeders between seasons
  • National Wildlife Federation: Feed birds all year, except if you have bears(!)
  • RSPB: Feed birds all year, but not peanuts, bread, or fat during the nesting season
  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Feed birds all year, change up the foods, keep it clean
  • The Humane Society: Don't feed birds in summer, except hummingbirds and goldfinches
Let's look a little more closely at articles posted on the websites of these expert bird watching and wildlife organizations.

1. National Audubon Society says:

In her article: "To feed, or not to feed" (source) writer Jennifer Huizen quotes an article in the science journal "Nature," that 40% of Americans regularly feed birds.

But she looked at one study out of the University of Georgia that indicates that feeding birds can contribute to increasing the spread of communicable diseases among birds. The author of that study, Daniel Becker, does NOT tell us to stopping feeding birds, though.

As Huizen notes, in northern climes with harsh winters feeding birds really does help keep them alive.

Instead of taking bird feeders down at any particular time of year, Stephen Kress of the Audubon Society recommends thoroughly cleaning your feeders several times per year.

I thought it was interesting that Kress gives another reason for not buying mixed bird food: disease prevention. Mixed foods attracts many different species together to the same feeder, increasing the chance to spread diseases among the birds.

So to summarize this article: Go ahead and feed birds--even all year round--but clean your feeders regularly to prevent birds from getting sick.

2. National Wildlife Federation says:

Laura Tangley's article in the National Wildlife Federation's blog is titled: "Summer Bird Feeding: the Case For and Against" (source). She comes at the issue of summer bird feeding from an angle I hadn't considered before.

Tangley had always taken her feeders down in spring and not put them up again until late fall. Her reasoning was that the birds had plenty of natural food and didn't need her feeders. She also had another reason. She had heard a rumor that feeding birds could change a bird's migration timing.

First of all, she debunks the idea that feeding birds in spring might disrupt a bird's migratory pattern. In a discussion with backyard birding expert George H. Harrison, she learned that there is no evidence that feeders alter the migration timing of any bird species.

Harrison mentions the joy of birding in summer when you will see some birds not present in winter. The added bonus is that they will be in their colorful breeding plumage.

And later in summer, parent birds will introduce their offspring to your feeders! The young birds learn that bird feeders provide a source of nutrition. This learned knowledge of where to find food may help them survive come winter.

Surprisingly, though, the second half of the article dealt with bears! Evidently, in some less-developed areas, bears raid bird feeders in spring. That's bad enough. However, they keep coming back and get bolder in wanting food in residential areas. This puts them in conflict with homeowners and their pets. For this reason, then, if you live in bear country, feeders should be taken down whenever bears are most active.

To summarize: Feeding birds all year is fine, even beneficial, just as long as you don't have bears!

3. Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds says:

The RSPB discusses year round bird feeding in the article "When to feed garden birds" (source). This article comes at bird feeding from the point of view that feeding birds is a necessary supplement to natural food shortages during the year.

In the autumn and winter this article recommends feeding fatty food and water for providing energy to get through the cold nights. It suggests filling your feeder twice a day, but not to over-feed.

In spring and summer the RSPB says to feed high protein foods such as black oil sunflower seeds, mealworms, fruits, etc. This post warns against peanuts, fat (suet), and bread in summer, as parents may feed this to their young if natural foods are in low supply. These foods may choke the nestlings, this article claims. This article actually repeats the warning not to feed peanuts, dry hard food, bread or fats during the breeding season.

Summary of this article: Feed birds all year round, but change the type of food seasonally.

4. Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds says:

All About Birds has an in-depth article about what to feed birds in summer, not even acknowledging that there might be a question about doing so. The article has the clunky title: "Here's What to Feed Your Summer Bird Feeder Visitors" (source). It was written by Gustave Axelson.

In a short introduction this post mentions summer visits by parent birds and their new fledglings and the occurrence of some different species in summer as compared with winter.

The first subheading covers hummingbird nectar and feeding hummingbirds as a summertime activity. Certainly that is so for must of the country where winter is a harsh season with no hummingbirds. Anna's Hummingbirds are residents year round from Vancouver, British Columbia, south through the western halves of Washington State and Oregon, most of California, and residential areas of Arizona.

The next three subheadings in Axelson's article are about feeding oranges to orioles, sunflowers to grosbeaks and mealworms for bluebirds.

Finally, Axelson dives into some of the problems that summer bird feeding may encounter. He includes cleaning the feeders. He mentions that suet should be put in the shade so as not to turn rancid. Of course, farther south, suet will not survive the continuously higher summer temperatures. And he finally closes with a warning about bears. I didn't realize it was such a problem.

Summarizing this article: Feed birds all year; in summer add fruit and hummingbird nectar. Be aware of common problems encountered feeding birds in summer.

5. The Humane Society says:

The Humane Society has a different take in their article "Feeding your backyard birds" (source). There is one subheading in this question-and-answer post titled: "Should I feed birds year-round?".

While acknowledging that feeding birds in the winter can be beneficial, they are less enthusiastic about feeding birds in summer. In fact, rather than benefitting birds-of-the-year by providing easy food sources, this article says the opposite may happen. The post says that birds need to learn how to find natural foods on their own. The recommendation here is to stop feeding birds in summer.

The exceptions that the Humane Society mentions are hummingbirds and goldfinches. Hummingbirds appreciate the nectar to refuel their high metabolisms. And goldfinches nest later in summer when the thistle blooms, so may need supplemental sources of small seeds until mid-summer, later than other birds.

Summary: Stop feeding birds in summer except for hummingbirds and goldfinches.

Photo of Black-headed Grosbeak on a feeder
If you take down your bird feeder at the end of winter you won't
 have birds like this Black-headed Grosbeak to enjoy.
Photo by Greg Gillson

What time of year do you feed birds?

The consensus is clear. You can feed birds all year long.

You will have many of the same resident backyard birds all year. There also will be several migratory species that occur only in winter or only in summer. There's no need not to feed them, even though summertime bird feeding might not be as necessary as wintertime feeding.

In most cases, feeding birds is about the joy of watching them more than an actual "need" or dependence upon human-supplied food that birds may need. The northern edge of the range of some half-hardy bird species in recent years has advanced northward, assumably in response to having winter feeding stations. For instance, the range of Tufted Titmouse in the East has expanded northward steadily over the last 70 years. Bird feeding is thought to be the major contributor to this observation.

The only point of contention I found was whether fledglings benefit from bird feeders or not. Two of the experts (National Wildlife Federation and Cornell Lab or Ornithology) endorsed feeders for fledglings. Two other experts disagreed. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds objection was that adult birds, during temporary local food shortages, might feed peanuts or bread to nestlings, causing them to choke. Once the young birds are out of the nest, the Humane Society felt that the fledglings should learn to find food on their own.

None of these experts mentioned water as part of "bird feeding." Yet I believe that having fresh water may be a greater need than food. In winter, natural water sources may freeze for days. In summer, these sources may dry up or become choked with algae. Having a clean source of water for drinking and bathing should be considered a vital part of bird feeding.

When should I take down my bird feeder?

It is not necessary to take down your bird feeders seasonally. However, there may be times when it is prudent to take down your feeders, at least temporarily.
  • Any time feeding birds might cause harm
  • If food goes bad
  • If you get mold or algae in bird bath
  • If you have trouble with bears
  • If a Cooper's or Sharp-shinned Hawk regularly hunts at your feeder
  • If you notice diseased birds at your feeder
  • If your feeders are taken over by larger birds or nighttime critters
The Humane Society in the post referenced above gives excellent common-sense guidance on when to feed birds and when not to feed them. It states that we should not feed birds when it might cause harm.

With that in mind, when might feeding birds cause harm, prompting us to take down our bird feeder?

If you decide not to feed birds in summer, don't take your feeders down too soon. Migrant orioles and tanagers migrate in April and May. They will be attracted to orange halves, raisins, jelly. And what a joyful explosion of color these birds add to your backyard! Likewise, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks (East) and Black-headed Grosbeaks (West) would love your seed feeder, all summer long if you live in the northern half of the United States and southern Canada where they are summer residents, not just migrants.

Suet feeders should come down any time it turns rancid. Suet will handle a few days of warm weather, but once the constant heat of summer comes the suet will melt or turn rancid quickly. By this time birds will be finding nice fat juicy bugs, so the suet isn't necessary until cool fall weather comes again.

Likewise, anytime hummingbird nectar becomes cloudy with bacteria, or black mold grows, it should be taken down. The feeder should be washed thoroughly before adding fresh nectar. Soak in a 10% bleach solution or 50% vinegar solution. Avoid soap, which, evidently, hummingbirds can taste and don't like.

Clean bird baths and fountains regularly. Scrub with 10% bleach solution to kill mold and algae. Don't let them sit with stale water that may attract mosquitos. If you can't keep the water clean and safe, take it down.

As already discussed, if you live in bear country, take feeders down by April 1 and delay putting them back up until November 1. Check any local ordinances or advice of wildlife specialists.

It can be exciting to spot a Cooper's Hawk or Sharp-shinned Hawk in your backyard. However, you may not want to provide these bird hawks with a constant source of fat sparrows and finches from your feeder. I found one reference that Cooper's Hawks eat up to 12% of their body weight each day. I assume it is similar for Sharp-shinned Hawks. Of course, these hawks also eat mammals. But if they did eat only birds, how many birds does a Cooper's Hawk eat in a day? Males are much smaller than females in these hawks. Sharp-shinned Hawks weigh about 3.0-7.7 ounces. Cooper's Hawks weigh 7.8-25 ounces. A House Finch averages 0.78 ounces. Thus, at 12%, Sharp-shinned Hawks would average 1/2 to 2 House Finches per day, if that's all they ate. Cooper's Hawks would average 2-4 House Finches per day, if that's all they ate. You may want to stop feeding birds until these hawks find a new hunting ground.

Diseased birds are another reason to stop feeding and take down your feeder. Sick siskins or goldfinches sitting inactive on the feeder or dead underneath are a good clue that you may be dealing with a communicable disease. House Finches may have a grossly swollen eye. Take the feeder down for 2 weeks until all the sick birds have died (or been eaten by the Cooper's Hawk). Clean and scrub the feeder with 10% bleach solution.

If your feeders are taken over by starlings, blackbirds, grackles, crows, jays or other undesirable larger birds, remove food from tray feeders and perhaps only feed from tube feeders or feeders with cages around them that keep out larger birds. If the larger birds aren't getting anything to eat they will move elsewhere eventually. And don't ever feed human food waste (bread, meat, other). You may find that you're feeding an entire nighttime menagerie of rats, raccoons, opossums, skunks, and other critters.

There are a lot of reasons to take down your feeders. But "summer" isn't one of those reasons.



Read next: FAQ: How to set up a bird feeding station in 6 easy steps!


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