The do’s and don’ts of feeding birds

Experts say feeding birds can provide plenty of benefits to wildlife and families. Here’s how to get it right for both you and the fliers.

By Jason Bittel
Published 26 Jul 2022, 10:44 BST
Window Bird Feeder - Feeding Birds
A window feeder helps birds like this European robin avoid crashes and gives kids plenty of opportunities for viewing.
Photograph by Andi Edwards, Getty Images

Here’s a secret: You get more out of feeding your garden birds than the actual birds do.

“The birds don’t need us to feed them,” says Geoff LeBaron, director of the Christmas Bird Count for the National Audubon Society. “So the ultimate purpose of bird feeding is for people and families to actually see the birds that are in their yard, which is a wonderful thing.”

Kids, especially, can learn empathy by caring for other living things. And though wild birds aren’t quite the same as having a pet, the regularity of their visits and their relative tolerance for people make them great candidates for teaching little ones a number of life lessons.

“For the people giving the birds food, it’s generally a very good thing,” says Jack Shutt, a biologist at Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom who published a 2021 study that investigated the effects of feeding wild animals. “It connects them to nature and gives a lot of people a lot of happiness.”

That’s not to say that birds don’t get anything from their human helpers. Done correctly, Shutt says that providing wild birds with healthy foods can help boost their populations and increase individual health.

But feeding birds does carry some risk, too.

For starters, outbreaks like the mystery disease that afflicted songbirds in the American Northeast last year can be made worse when birds congregate at feeders. A concentrated food source brings the birds closer together than in the wild, which makes it easier for diseases to spread between them.

Studies have also shown that some species, such as the blackcap, are changing their long-held migration patterns because bird feeders provide food year-round. What’s more, bird feeders can attract other animals, like rodents and foxes, which can create conflict with people. And birds that make use of seed kicked to the ground are more susceptible to cat attacks.

But with the knowledge that birds are generally in stark decline, experts agree that setting out bird feeders does more good than ill.

To help you and your family enjoy the benefits of feeding birds while minimising the potential for harm, we’ve asked these experts for their bird-feeding tips. And the best part is, birds are remarkably quick to find new feeders—so you can get started anytime!

Where to place a bird feeder

• To select a proper site for your bird feeder, LeBaron recommends a location that’s either less than three feet or more than 30 feet away from a window. Both help birds avoid accidental crashes.

• If window strikes are still a problem, consider moving the feeder to a new location or applying window decals that help birds notice the glass. (Kids will love helping pick out the design!)

• Place the feeder near a bush or tree to give the birds a safe spot if a predator shows up.

• Shutt advises people to resist the urge to set up a bunch of different feeders. One or two are really all you need, and too many could draw in rats, squirrels, and other creatures.

• Similarly, Bob Mulvihill, ornithologist at Pittsburgh’s National Aviary, discourages people from placing feeders in out-of-sight locations, like side alleys or open fields. Remember, the whole point is to observe the birds.

• No garden? No problem! Many bird feeders can be fastened directly to a window. Try installing one near where your kids eat breakfast so it feels like you’re all eating together. Bird feeders equipped with Bluetooth-enabled video cameras are another option.

• Finally, if your yard or neighbourhood has outdoor cats, LeBaron says you might want to rethink any bird feeder. “No matter what you do, birdseed is going to get on the ground, and then the birds are going to go to it,” he warns. “And that’s where they’re most susceptible.”

How to maintain a bird feeder

• No matter what kind of feeder you use or where you live, experts recommend cleaning your feeders with soap and water as frequently as once each week. “You wouldn’t leave dog food out for weeks,” LeBaron says. “It’s kind of like feeding poisoned food to your pet.” This chore can be a family-friendly activity as long as kids wash their hands when finished.

• Avoid stocking your feeder with foods birds wouldn’t encounter naturally in the wild, especially if they’re processed. That means no nut or seed mixes intended for people, because they’ll likely be loaded with salt. No crackers, crisps, raw meat, pet food, honey, or bacon fat either. Peanut butter is an exception to the rule and is generally OK to feed birds.

• Bread is also a no-no, says Mulvihill, even though he fondly remembers his own mother feeding it to birds, which might have helped spark his own interest. “It’s safe to say that anything that is human junk food is bird junk food, too,” he says.

• If the birds at your feeder have crusty eyes and appear lethargic, this can be a sign that conjunctivitis is spreading. It’s a natural occurrence, LeBaron says, but you should still take your feeders down for a few weeks. Likewise, look to your local or state wildlife agency for updates on other pathogens, and follow their advice if they recommend pulling down feeders.

Bird-feeding activities for kids

• Start by trying to identify which species of birds come to your feeder. If that task sounds daunting, don’t worry! The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a free, easy-to-use bird identification app. It will also store a list of species you’ve sighted. In the U.K., the RSPB has this online identifier, too. 

• When a few birds of the same species come to the feeder at the same time, see if your child can spot differences in the individual birds, like size or colouration.

• Recognise a bird or pair of birds that returns on a regular basis? Give them names! This will help your kids attach to the activity and the birds they’re supporting.

• Look for differences in the behaviour of the feeding birds. For instance, kids can note when a species appears to be dominant, such as a bluejay that clears the area when it arrives. Or they can watch as birds scatter or become silent when a hawk flies overhead. Consider keeping such observations in a field notebook.

• Different bird species prefer different kinds of food. As an experiment, try putting out different kinds of food and have your child log which kinds of birds flock to the feeder that week. 

• Take your research to the next level by participating in a citizen science project. For instance, the the Great Backyard Bird Count is a global birding event that happens each February. And using the iNaturalist app, you and your family can contribute to science every day of the year simply by logging the species you see. (If your kids are younger than 13, make sure this is a family activity. Or try the iNaturalist’s kid-safe app, Seek.)

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