Bird Feeding is Okay


(This column was first published in the January 13, 2003 issue of The Buffalo News.)


It's okay to maintain your backyard bird feeders.


I offer that suggestion in response to a December 27th Wall Street Journal column by James Sterba whose headline blusters: "Crying Fowl: Feeding Wild Birds May Harm Them and Environment It Lures Pests, Causes Illness".


That column has raised the hackles of the birding community and in particular, as you might expect, those who sell bird food and feeders. Frankly, I think the article raises some issues that should concern those who feed birds but it shouldn't make anyone stop feeding them.


As Sterba admits, maintaining bird feeders "is an easy and inexpensive way to watch birds," and he adds the suggestions of George Fenwick, president of American Bird Conservancy: it gets those feeding birds "back to nature, into bird watching and for conservation."


John Fitzpatrick and Andre Dhondt of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology add another value: those who maintain bird feeders (and especially school students) can contribute to major scientific research projects. The best way to do this is to join Cornell's Project Feeder Watch, q. v. A small fee supports program costs including an excellent journal.


Two points Sterba raises should be considered seriously by those who feed birds:


1. Feeders do attract "nuisance" wildlife: squirrels, rats, raccoons, skunks, feral (and pet) cats and even in some locales like our Southern Tier, bears, when they are not hibernating.


2. Feeders can, when not properly cared for, spread disease. They should be cleaned and disinfected periodically with bleach.


Points taken, but beyond these Sterba doesn't make nearly as much sense. Here are some of his claims together with my responses:


* Feeding them "lures the birds close to houses and roads where tens of millions of them fly into windows and cars." Those regrettable deaths are rarely associated with bird feeding. Sterba also cites a Cornell study that found 51% of "backyard bird deaths" are caused by window collisions. That sounds bad until you realize that those "backyard" deaths make up a very small percentage of overall bird mortality.


* "House cats...treat feeders as fast-food outlets." This is like saying remain indoors because there are criminals out there. Cats do pose a problem, but it is better addressed by removing feral cats and keeping pet cats indoors. (I add my conviction that cats should be licensed just as dogs are.)


* Hawks too raid feeders. Indeed they do but those hawks are not overeating. They would be taking a similar number of birds if no feeders were available. And I know of no feeder where the numbers of birds are reduced significantly by this natural act of predation.


* Feeders create "welfare wildlife". (Sterba knows his audience. Here he raises that favorite Journal whipping-boy, welfare.) If every feeder were removed today, that act would, I suggest, make very little difference to wild birds. Yes, feeders have played a role in the northward range extension of what birders call "half-hardies", southern birds like cardinals, Carolina wrens, titmice and mockingbirds. Even for those birds, however, feeders supply only a fraction of their diet. Winter bird deaths are far more closely related to severe weather freezing rain or harsh winds, for example than to food supplies. Die-backs occur even with bird feeding.


* We're wrongly "managing" wildlife. Perhaps, but Sterba somehow associates this with the reforesting of our continent. Are we to remove trees because they bring us into increasing contact with wildlife? I think not.


So continue to feed birds, but conscientiously. Don't do this to save them from starvation; feed these winter visitors to see them up close.-- Gerry Rising