Bird Feeding


(This 1021st Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 17, 2010.)


It is that time of year when many of us begin once again to set out various kinds of sunflower seeds, millet and suet to feed birds. I will attempt in this column to respond to some of the questions readers have asked about this topic.


First, some general comments about bird feeding: If you feed birds, you are doing so for your pleasure and not, with a few rare exceptions, to save birds from starving. Of course, birds need to eat and some birds must consume over half their weight each day. They find that food, however, by constantly searching tree bark for tiny insects dormant in their winter cocoons, trees and shrubs for their berries, and wild and garden plants for their seeds.


Birds will continue to do this between visits to your feeders. Such feeding is ingrained, so you need not feel obligated, as some people do, to have a neighbor continue filling your feeders during that period when you leave to spend a week or two in Florida. Even if a few of 'your' birds had become feeder dependent, nowadays there are plenty of bird feeders for them to seek out elsewhere.


Years ago when I was a bird bander, I trapped a song sparrow, weighed and released it, then retrapped it twenty hours later after a blizzard. It had lost a quarter of its weight. That was indeed one of those times when feeding might have saved birds. After a storm when everything is covered with a thick layer of ice is another time when feeding may save birds but those are rare events.


Even during the times when you aren't saving birds, however, you do gain much pleasure from feeding them. It is a constant delight to watch the antics of chickadees and nuthatches, downy and hairy woodpeckers, house finches and goldfinches, and an occasional titmouse or purple finch at your feeder. Then a flash of red and a cardinal drops in. And now increasingly, red-bellied and even pileated woodpeckers visit feeders for suet treats.


There are also years when we have rare visitors from the north: siskins, redpolls, and even a few crossbills and pine and evening grosbeaks come south during those incursions.


The most common feeder questions I receive relate to requests (or today often orders) that you either stop feeding birds or severely curtail feeding them.


A number of towns are restricting bird feeding due to the rat problem that appears to worsening in the suburbs surrounding Buffalo. A neighbor recently received a violation notice about his bird feeding with a warning that continued infractions would result in stiff fines.


Please don't come to me to complain about such notices as I am on the side of the refuse control officer. Rats represent a serious problem and one that is very difficult to control. And it is not easy for a town employee to have to confront a person who has been doing something he believes to be beneficial for years to tell him that it is no longer allowed. The problem is severe so I urge you to cooperate.


In some cases you may have to give up feeding birds entirely. Apparently, however, the problem is with seeds that fall to the ground. Some people, my neighbor included, have addressed this by adding either nets or large trays below their feeders to catch seeds that the birds push out. For feeders that are mounted on poles, it is also important to add baffles to prevent rats from climbing to those trays.


There is another reason you may have to give up bird feeding, at least for a time. If you have a hawk or a shrike that is regularly taking birds from your feeders, you have created a smorgasbord for it. A few weeks without feeding may turn the raptor to another neighborhood.


If you do continue to feed birds, and I hope that many of you will, consider joining the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Project Feederwatch. You can join thousands of other observers internationally to contribute to our understanding of bird populations. Find out more about this program by visiting their website,, or by calling them toll-free at 866-989-2473.-- Gerry Rising