For the Birds: Do Bird Feeders Really Cause Dependency?

Monday, February 7, 2011

Evening Grosbeak. Photo by Christine Southwick
by Christine Southwick

There’s an urban myth that feeding birds will cause them to become dependent and keep them from migrating when they should. This is only a myth!

Bird migration is driven by the amount and degree of sunlight. Food does not change this drive. In fact, good food will help increase the odds that the bird’s migration will be successful.

Successful bird species have evolved by continuously searching for and sampling new and different food varieties in diverse locations. Proof of their programmed vigilance and continued search for new food sources is the fact that birds find new feeders in places where there were none before.

Studies have found that feeding wild birds improves their survival rate, and increases breeding success and clutch sizes. Feeders are treated like a mother lode of fast food—what scientists term a “resource patch,” meaning food is plentiful and easily accessible, like a ripe berry patch or a fruit tree laden with fruit.

Birds need up to 10,000 calories a day—they must find good food for nourishment, and eat it quickly for safety from predation. Feeders can provide both, if they are set up correctly and offer quality seed.

MacGillivray's Warbler. Photo by Christine Southwick
Here in the Puget Sound area, unshelled black-oil sunflowers are a much appreciated food. Mess-free shelled mixes are good too, as long as they don’t have any red millet, and very little white. Saffron seeds are not well received here either. Watch the birds at your feeders. Do they throw a lot of the seed on the ground? If so, change what you are offering. Uneaten seed on the ground will invite guests you would rather not have. Suet, water, and native plantings will draw birds to your feeders. Remember to keep them clean.

One study found that feeders only provide 25% of a bird’s daily intake. With wild habitats shrinking by the day, that 25% of high-energy food, especially during harsh weather, helps even the score, and will often make the difference between their surviving or perishing.

So, enjoy feeding the birds. Besides, it is so fun to watch your regular birds darting back and forth, their bright colors and cute antics bringing cheer to a dreary winter day.

And don’t be surprised when an unexpected avian explorer lands at your feeder to see if your seed should become a part of its food route.

Christine Southwick is on the Board of the Puget Sound Bird Observatory and is their Winter Urban Color-banding Project Manager.  She is a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat Steward, having completed their forty hour class. We're happy that she's sharing her expertise with us about the birds in our backyards.


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