May 4, 2019
By Lisa Hug
If you are feeding birds in your garden, you are one of more than 50 million North Americans feeding wild birds. The benefits to humans are obvious. We get tremendous pleasure from watching feeder birds, such as our colorful House Finches and lively Oak Titmice. But, do the birds themselves gain any advantages from getting food from feeders?
A study done by Cornell Lab of Ornithology has found that populations of bird species that use feeders frequently tend to stay steady or increase slightly compared to species that do not use feeders. Additional research also concluded that forest birds that visited feeders tended to have less stress and more rapid feather growth than those that had no access to feeders.
As bird populations around the world are threatened by habitat loss through human-caused environmental degradation, feeding birds can be one way that we can help alleviate some of the stresses we’ve put on these populations over the years.
It is important, however, that we feed birds the correct food. Small birds such as titmice, nuthatches and chickadees may go for black oil sunflower seeds. These seeds are high in much-needed fat and the seeds are easy for small birds to crack open. White proso millet is another good choice that is high in protein. Goldfinches and Pine Siskins are especially attracted to nyjer seed.
Suet cakes attract woodpeckers and nuthatches. They are a great source of fat which supplies much-needed energy to birds, especially in the cold months. Many surprising birds can visit suet feeders, such as the beautiful Townsend’s Warbler.
May is an important breeding month for our local songbirds. They especially need protein during this season, and are mostly eating insects. Seeds are not sought after much in spring. Instead, you may want to put out mealworms for bluebirds and robins. Orioles always appreciate the extra dab of grape jelly. Female birds need calcium to lay strong-shelled eggs, so putting out baked, cracked chicken eggshells can be very helpful for them.
It is always fun to put out nesting material for birds. Human hair, horse hair, and dryer lint are some biodegradable items that can be put out for birds to use for nest-building. I have a coconut-husk hanging planter that I allow my scrub -jays to tear apart. They also bury acorns in the planter soil. They somehow know this planter is for them to do with as they please, and I enjoy watching their antics while drinking my morning coffee.
There are some foods that you definitely should not feed to the birds. These include bread and table scraps which can harm birds and may attract rodents. Chocolate is poisonous to birds.
There can be negative effects of feeding birds. Some birds can injure themselves by accidentally flying into glass windows. To prevent this, place the feeders at least 30 feet from any glass windows. Or place them closer than 3 feet to the glass surfaces, so the birds cannot work up any momentum before flying toward the glass.
Cooper’s Hawks can be attracted to feeders to prey on the birds themselves. House cats will also stalk bird feeders. If you notice a hawk spending time at your feeders you should take the feeders down for a couple weeks until the hawk moves on. Watch diligently for any house cats that may be hunting in your garden. Use squirt guns, loud noises, everything you can to deter these pets from hunting at your feeders. And of course, keep your own cat indoors.
Because of the density of birds at feeders, diseases can be spread through bird populations at the feeder sites. If you see a lethargic or malformed bird at your feeder, you should take down your feeders immediately and wash them with a dilute bleach solution. Keep the feeders down for at least a week. Feeders should be cleaned with dilute bleach solution at least every two weeks as a matter of course.
Feeding birds can be incredibly satisfying. It is mesmerizing to watch birds come into your garden. There are the common species that you get to know and love through familiarity, and then there are the occasional surprises that come through as a delightful treat!
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