Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wild Birds: To Feed or Not to Feed?

It's springtime, and many of the migratory bird species are back. That's why I decided to take a closer look at what science can tell us about feeding backyard birds.

In short, feeding in and of itself isn't actually that effective. While there's a lot more that bird enthusiasts can do, I plan to explore that in next week's column. 

This week's column
In the syndicated column, I break down some stats reported by US Fish & Wildlife Services and Stats Canada that quantify how big of a deal North Americans make out of wild birds (excluding hunting). The bottom line is that bird feeding, sheltering, and watching are a huge industry across the continent, with annual expenditures topping one billion dollars. This week, I also dug into the implications of a number of scientific studies that investigated various impacts of backyard bird feeding.

The following illustrations accompany the column, which is available to subscribers of publications running Drawn to the West as a syndicated column. 

  • If hope really is “the thing with feathers” as Emily Dickinson said, then the West is aflutter with optimists this time of year. For wild-bird enthusiasts and ornithologists alike, bird watching entails much more than optimism. A growing body of research indicates that how we manage our backyards has considerable impact on wild bird populations.
  • Because food is a fundamental factor in nearly every facet of birds’ life cycles, supplemental food sources provided by humans may have significant negative and positive influences on bird ecology.

If you'd like to read the column, let your local newspaper or magazine editor know you want to see an illustrated version of the West in their publication!


  • Are wild birds picky eaters? Yes. It turns out, not everything we feed wild birds is ideal for them. A study conducted on common North American species that visit feeders assessed seed preferences across the U.S. and Canada. The results indicate that specific species have specific preferences which are based on feeding behavior (perching and eating vs. flying away with food), size and strength of their bill, fat and protein contents of the seeds, and whether or not the seed has a hull. For example, chickadees preferred high-fat, high-protein seeds with hulls, likely because they fly away to eat or stash the seeds. This activity requires extra energy to fly back and forth from a food source to a perch or cache, and the seeds need to be intact in order to store well. As a result, those of us who feed birds may want to be selective about setting our menu, as our guests appear to be selectively dining. Beyond the economics of wasted seeds, uneaten seeds can attract unwanted wildlife such as squirrels, raccoons, and bears, and some seeds produce compounds toxic to birds when left to rot.
  • Check out Project Feeder Watch for a neat citizen science project involving tracking the birds that visit your backyard feeders.
  • An interesting breakdown from the USFWS study, here's how states in the Mountain West rank in terms of % of population participating in birding:
    • 4. Wyoming (31%)
    • 5. Alaska (30%)
    • 7. Idaho (29%)
    • 10. Colorado (26%)
    • 21. Montana (22%)
    • 26. New Mexico (21%)
    • 33. Arizona (18%)
    • 41. Nevada (16%)

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