For many of us, our most intimate interaction with birds is through feeding them.
At our feeders, we can witness the comings and goings of migration, vivid breeding plumage molting into low-key winter colors, new fledglings learning to fly and feed themselves, even death.
Feeders can make birding accessible to those too young to operate binoculars, too infirm to hike through the woods, or too busy to leave the house. But bird feeding can get surprisingly complicated.
What you do and how you do it can affect how many birds you see, which kinds and how healthy they are, among other variables. So here are a few guidelines to help you decide whether, when and how to feed birds.
Have fun. If you stop feeding, the birds will not starve. If you feed year-round, wild birds will not decide to stop migrating. Bird feeding is just a way to attract birds to a convenient location where we can easily enjoy them.
Know what’s in your feeders. Supermarket seed mixes often include cheap seeds that wild birds do not eat. If you can only feed one thing, black oil sunflower is easy and attracts a variety of birds. If you opt for multiple feeders, suet, dried or live mealworms, thistle seed, millet, sugar water and fresh fruit each appeal to a different group of bird species.
Add water. An electric de-icer can keep water drinkable in freezing weather. Water moved by a dripper, mini-waterfall, or small artificial stream will attract more birds and not breed mosquitoes.
Keep it clean. Mold can be fatal to birds, especially hummingbirds. Dirty feeders and bird baths can transmit diseases, and birds carry salmonella that can be dangerous to humans. At least once per week, clean hummingbird feeders and dump out and replace uneaten seed. Clean all feeders at least once a year (preferably with bleach), and wash your hands after any contact with them.
Location, location, location. Most birds avoid using feeders in exposed locations due to the risk from predators. Feeders near vegetation or a brush pile attract more birds and more species. However, placing the feeder too close to cover will help predators to ambush your feeder visitors, so leave at least a few feet of space.
In addition, birds sometimes fly into windows and are injured or killed. If this happens, move your feeders either farther away from the windows, or closer. Farther away makes birds less likely to hit the window. Closer leaves the birds less distance to accelerate so that they can hit the window at too slow a speed to hurt themselves. One-way films that are transparent from inside the house but visible to the birds outside can make windows less dangerous.
Know whom you’re feeding. Species that share a feeder may not share nest sites so nicely. European starlings and house sparrows kill native species like Eastern bluebirds and take over their nests. Cowbirds lay eggs in the nests of other songbirds, killing the hosts’ own chicks or forcing them to starve. Squirrels and chipmunks are voracious predators on birds’ eggs and nestlings.
Try replacing seed mixes with just one type of seed, or feed suet or mealworms instead. Or try different feeders, such as weight-sensitive models that close if larger birds or squirrels arrive. Suspending feeders under a horizontal wooden square can discourage starlings and cowbirds. To deter mammals, add hot pepper to your feed.
Let cats and dogs watch… through the window. Cats can profoundly damage ecosystems. They kill not just birds but also mammals, reptiles and amphibians. Cats that stay indoors are healthier and live longer. Dogs have similar impacts on wildlife, so keep them out of wildlife habitat and away from your bird feeders.
Don’t mind the occasional violence. Sometimes a hawk will notice the birds coming to your feeders, and do some feeding itself. But don’t worry: it won’t stay long. The hawk depends on wild food, so cannot hunt at one place indefinitely; surviving prey will notice and leave the area, forcing the hawk to relocate.
If a hawk starts hunting at your feeder, enjoy the opportunity to see a wild raptor in action; it will not last.
Know when to stop. Bears love seeds and suet. They can become dangerous to humans and pets if they make a habit of feeding near our homes. You can sometimes discourage them with hot pepper in the feed. Otherwise, take your feeders down until snow falls and the bears start to hibernate.
You should enjoy bird feeding, and you and the birds should be safe. If you can’t keep your feeders clean, and keep your birds safe from cats, windows and other threats, or if doing this makes bird feeding feel like a burden rather than a joy, then there are other ways to enjoy birds in your yard.
Birds are attracted to good habitat. Try installing nest boxes with predator guards for cavity-nesting birds to raise their young. Leave dead trees standing so birds can create their own nest cavities, and procure food. Replace exotic plants with native species to help insect-eating birds like warblers, vireos, thrushes and flycatchers that usually ignore feeders. These improvements can benefit birds long after our feeders are gone.
I could say a lot more; there are whole books on the subject. But if all you want is to see healthy birds coming and going outside your windows, these tips should point you in the right direction. Happy feeding!
Joshua Rose is a naturalist who lives in Amherst. He is a Hitchcock Center for the Environment member and a board member of the Hampshire Bird Club; he regularly leads programs for local nature-oriented groups.
Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.