More on birds: To feed or not to feed?

More reports are coming into my e-mail, including kind corrections from readers who had a good chuckle over a miss-spelling of a species created by my computer’s spell-checker (and my inattention) last week. You readers don’t miss a thing! Thank-you for your diligence and e-mails. What I wrote was: “Salmonella is highly contagious and reports suggest that infection of different species is now occurring. American Goldfinches and Sickens are at risk, especially at this time of year.”

The species is correctly spelled “Siskin.” In fact, they are even more correctly referred to as Pine Siskins, being heavily striped brown and white finches. They often appear at our feeders with the Common Redpolls.

Which brings us to the issue I mentioned last week: Should we be feeding wild birds? Doesn’t this create a dependency upon unnatural sources and (possibly) types of food?

From agricultural workers through to retailers, growing and supplying bird food is a major industry. But do “jobs, jobs, jobs” mean it’s the “right” thing to be doing with wild birds?

Several of you have written or spoken to me in the past, saying you think it’s bad practice. In some cases I agree, particularly when I see chemicals like red dye being added to hummingbird feeders.

But what do bird specialists have to say on the subject? National Capital Region bird specialist Tony Beck responds, “The birds do not depend on our free handouts. They merely modify their behaviour temporarily to take advantage of our generosity.

“First, we must keep in mind that only a small percent of birds survive beyond the first year.”

This was an interesting point, which Tony backs up by quoting statistics from A Dictionary of Birds (Buteo Books), saying that between 70% and 90% of songbirds die in their first year. He quotes from the book, “Most birds die through inexperience, for they are constantly at risk from predators, disease, accident and food shortage. Newly independent fledglings are at greatest risk and mortality gradually decreases as the birds become more experienced."

I wonder if this is not true for most if not all wild species, not simply birds. “Inexperience” in the wild must bring perilous results. Just as in other species, such as members of the rodent family which have multiple litters of multiple births, nature attempts to ensure survival of species through probability and numbers. This is undoubtedly why some birds raise more than one clutch of eggs in a season: to increase their likelihood of survival.

According to these statistics, Tony is correct when he notes, “The point is, it is normal to have a high mortality rate.” He then continues, discussing migration as a way in which birds will continue to find adequate if not abundant food resources. But what of our birds like Chickadees, Siskins and others that do not migrate? Should we feed them?

Tony responds, “In winter, a bird's daily routine incorporates several food supplies in a wide area, not just a single source. If it relied on only one source of natural food, it would surely become exhausted before the end of winter, and the bird's chances of survival would diminish.

“Black-capped Chickadees, for example, will form small flocks and travel through a large territory searching for food. If your feeders are within that route, they will stop for a visit. If you suddenly go off on vacation, the birds might continue to visit, but move through your property much faster, spending more time in other areas.

“Many finches, and other nomadic species, move around constantly during the winter. They are completely unaffected by harsh conditions, as long as they have plenty to eat. They move from one area to the next, taking advantage of whatever they can find. For example, a flock of Pine Grosbeaks can finish off a berry-rich mountain ash in a couple of days. Once finished, the birds move on.”

Perhaps many of you will have observed how thoroughly a flock of birds will completely devour a food source. Here at my farm, a flock of Pine Grosbeaks alighted on an ash tree, devouring all its seed clusters in less than an hour. It was fascinating to watch.

Tony continues, adding “We must remember that these species have successfully followed this feeding pattern much longer than humans have been on the planet! Some species have become more common during winter because of bird feeders. These species have a greater survival rate because it is easier for them to ‘battle the elements’ on a full tummy. Mourning Doves and Northern Cardinals are two examples of success in winter. Yes, they are slowly adapting to harsher conditions because of our free handouts!”

Whether or not we feed is up to each and every one of us. But Tony’s last point adds another intriguing point to the discussion, namely that we are increasing the territories of birds by feeding them. Increasing the range of a bird will impact the environment. How do we assess impact of new or increasing numbers of species?

But some birds also get trapped by mild winters, or become confused and so overwinter in a region where they normally don’t have to search for food and warmth.

On this point, Tony writes, “Some birds occasionally wander out of their normal range, or fail to move far enough south in fall migration. These birds become desperate for food since they have suddenly found themselves in unfamiliar territory (unfamiliar to their instinctive responses.) In these cases, if they find a rich food supply (like a bird feeder), their survival might depend on it. If you stop giving these birds their free handouts they might not survive the harsh winter conditions.

“My parents have a Yellow-rumped Warbler coming to their feeder this winter. It is feeding on suet cakes that my mom conveniently cuts into small pieces. I am sure this bird would perish if it wasn't for her diligence and generosity.”

And so, as is so often the case, there is no clear answer here on whether or not you should feed birds. In other words, it is up to us to figure out how we interact with nature.

What I say is this: make your choice. But if you feed birds, ensure your feeders are clean and that you offer wholesome, natural foods to them.

And then: enjoy!


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer who enjoys feeding birds at her farm near Quyon, Québec.