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The Thoughtful Feeder

With the right techniques and precautions, bird feeding can benefit you and your feathered friends

From All Animals magazine, November/December 2009

Two bluebirds at a bird feeder

Kathy Milani/The HSUS

by Ruthanne Johnson

Humans and pets aren’t the only animals who can lose their homes to the wildfires blazing through Southern California each year. As flames ravage habitats in the mountains and arid grasslands, the birds around Herman Paulk’s hilltop residence in San Bernardino start looking for new food sources.

The 80-year-old avian enthusiast is happy to oblige, sprinkling food in shallow holes he digs around his yard to keep the seeds from blowing away in the high winds. When the weather calms, he fills the nearly 20 feeders on his property with a smorgasbord of treats.

The buffet attracts new friends to Paulk’s yard, as he discovered after a particularly devastating fire in 2003. “Right away we noticed a large number of California quail visiting around the base of our feeders, and California thrashers,” he says.
Paulk has recorded 87 species at his feeders---including loggerhead shrikes, California towhees, and Western meadowlarks---and has taken thousands of photos over the years. “When we eat meals, we are right in front of our sliding glass door, and I keep binoculars and my camera close by,” he says.

More than 50 million Americans share Paulk’s enthusiasm for feeding birds, gaining hours of visual pleasure and a connection to the natural world. Many are also motivated by a desire to help the animals cope with threats to their survival, and setting out a meal for hungry creatures seems like an obvious good deed.

But there’s more to feeding birds than hanging a few platforms on shepherd hooks and filling them with seed, and some wildlife specialists have voiced concerns that the practice may make animals dependent on handouts, spread disease, and skew migration patterns.

Fortunately for dedicated feeders and the objects of their affection, most experts agree that, done correctly, bird feeding doesn’t harm the birds and may even benefit certain species.

While nearly a third of the nation’s more than 900 nesting bird species are endangered, threatened, or in significant decline, those that routinely visit feeders are stable or growing, says ornithologist David Bonter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And the ranges of feeder regulars such as tufted titmice, Carolina wrens, Northern cardinals, and red-bellied woodpeckers are expanding. “When you look at it at that level, it’s a good sign that feeding doesn’t hurt,” Bonter says.

Feeding also changes people’s attitudes toward nature, as Bonter has seen through his work with Cornell’s Project FeederWatch, a volunteer-based survey of birds in North America. “We get a lot of comments from FeederWatch participants who, after becoming acquainted with the birds visiting their yard, begin taking steps to create a more bird-friendly environment, like reducing their lawn, growing native fruit-bearing shrubs, and not having their lawn sprayed with chemicals twice a year,” Bonter says.

By following some basic tenets, you can provide a healthy environment for the animals who grace you with their company---and ensure that your winged pals aren’t harmed by your generosity.

Safety Alert

The sharp increase in birds visiting Paulk’s property after the 2003 fire also brought more predators. The little Japanese pine and woodpile atop the dusty knoll where he lives provide meager protection against the sharp-shinned hawks, roadrunners, Coopers hawks, and American kestrels ready to pounce on unsuspecting diners.

Predation by raptors and cats is indeed a major concern for feeding, and safety begins with enabling birds to escape such dangers. “If you have exposed bird feeders in the middle of a big open lawn,” says Bonter, “the birds become an easy target for aerial predators.”

Place feeders within 15 feet of trees, shrubs, or brush piles so birds can take cover but predators aren’t close enough to launch a sneak attack. If predation becomes a problem, Bonter suggests putting the feeders away until the predators move on.

Feeders can also place birds at greater risk of slamming into windows, a serious threat that kills or injures millions of birds each year. To cut down on window strikes, place feeders less than 3 feet or at least 30 feet away from windows. Static cling decals, some of which glow in the ultraviolet range, or strips of Mylar tape can help break up reflections. Other options include adding screens several inches outside window panes to soften the impact of collisions.

Keep confrontations between birds to a minimum by providing enough feeders to accommodate everyone and allowing ample space between feeding stations in case more aggressive birds---such as grackles, cowbirds, sparrows, and crows---swoop in for a bite. To minimize squabbles, separate the seed to appeal to different palates instead of serving mixes. And you can add feeders designed to discourage pushy types from perching.

The congregation of large numbers of birds at feeders can encourage the spread of disease. Birds who use tube feeders are more prone to conjunctivitis, an increasingly common illness among finches that causes red, runny, or crusty eyes. Salmonellosis, a common cause of death for feeder birds, results in a thin, fluffed-up, or lethargic appearance, while avian pox produces lesions on the unfeathered parts of a bird’s body. Moldy seed can host the aspergillus fungus, which causes serious respiratory disease in birds, with symptoms including emaciation and labored breathing or walking.

To prevent such diseases, Bonter recommends cleaning feeders every two weeks. Soak them in one part bleach to 10 parts warm water for two to three minutes, scrub, and rinse. This method works well with plastic feeders, but not wood, which tends to hold moisture and develop mold.

Bonter also moves his feeders around the yard to prevent the buildup of bird droppings and seed hulls underneath, which creates a breeding ground for bacteria, mold, and disease. Raking the ground every few days and scooping up the waste helps, too.


Seasonal Differences

Most ornithologists agree that feeding during spring and fall migrations won’t cause birds to stick around for weather they’re not equipped to endure. Rather, migration is triggered by amount of daylight and hormonal changes, says Chip Clous, outreach coordinator for the American Birding Association.

Supplemental feeding can help during the lean days of winter through early spring, when berries and seeds are difficult to find and insects are dead or dormant. Resident species such as chickadees, nuthatches, and cardinals may especially benefit from assistance. Many of these birds need fat reserves to survive colder temperatures, and foods such as black oil sunflower seeds, peanuts, chopped fruit, niger thistle and white proso millet can provide extra calories.

But be careful: If you live in a rural area with no other feeder in the vicinity, keep in mind that birds may depend on your handouts during winter emergencies, such as blizzards or ice storms. Just three days of a severe cold snap can kill a feeder-dependent chickadee, who derives as much as 4 percent of his body fat from eating sunflower seeds in lieu of conifer seeds and berries. So if you leave town, have someone fill the feeders in your absence.

Sometimes the birds themselves should have left town long ago, but instead stayed behind for the winter due to injuries or off-kilter internal migratory mechanisms. Feeders can help these stragglers, as Connie Kogler of Loveland, Colo., learned in 2007 while hosting an unexpected guest: a streak-backed oriole, a member of a rare Mexican species who wandered far north of her native range. Kogler fed the bird peanuts, jelly, suet pellets, and mealworms to fatten her up enough to survive nighttime temperatures below zero. Named Pedro Maria for her Mexican heritage, the oriole hung around for 26 days.

While cold weather means slim pickings, late spring, summer, and fall are the seasons of plenty; feeding during these times is not necessary for birds’ survival. Trees bear fruit, shrubs blossom with flowers and berries, and grasses and other plants go to seed.

“During summer, you’ll naturally have fewer birds visiting your feeders because almost all the birds switch over to an insect-based diet,” Bonter says, explaining that chicks need more protein from insects in order to grow healthy and strong. If you want to keep a few feeders for wildlife viewing, avoid foods such as suet and peanuts, which can quickly go rancid in the heat. In warm weather, seed is more prone to grow mold if exposed to moisture or not eaten quickly.

Regardless of the season, provide high-quality foods and fresh water when catering to the avian palate. Avoid bargain blends found in grocery and hardware stores, which often contain filler seed; to save money, you can buy seed in bulk from feed stores. And keep fresh seed in feeders, since moldy seed can cause disease.

By serving up appropriate foods in a clean and safe environment, you’ll have the satisfaction of watching your feathered guests thrive throughout the seasons.

Find more tips on feeding birds.

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