For the Birds

Enliven Your Yard with Feeders and Baths

A pair of acrobatic American gold-finches alight on a cylindrical hanging bird feeder, hungrily searching for thistle seeds. A shadow plays across them, and the goldfinches dive to the safety of a nearby shrub. A large hairy woodpecker lands on a nearby feeder filled with peanuts. Relieved, the goldfinches dart back to the thistle feeder.

Nearly a third of North America’s adult population enjoys bird feeding, according to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (CLO). Feeding birds is an excellent way for people to learn about wildlife, says Allison Wells, CLO communications and outreach director. "It’s relaxing and enjoyable, and people who start out feeding birds often become good stewards of the land."

Because some people worry that bird feeding disrupts natural patterns, the practice has long been debated by the environmental, bird-watching and home-owning communities. The National Bird-Feeding Society (NBFS) says bird feeding has only positive effects on the environment. John Bianchi, spokesperson for the National Audubon Society, adds, "Wild bird feeding is all pros and no cons." He says bird feeders help offset pressures from development, pollution, pesticides and the widespread planting of non-native vegetation. "Despite common beliefs," says Bianchi, "there is no evidence that feeding wild birds changes their migratory patterns or makes them in any way dependent on people."

Go Wild

Sue Wells, NBFS executive director, says the society’s goal is to help people use their yards to give something back to birds and wildlife. She says, "The green carpet lawn is not attractive to any birds except, perhaps, robins." The NBFS urges people to "leave it wild" by plant-ing native plants and grasses, making brush piles, tending hedge rows, leaving dead trees in place, keeping house cats indoors and allowing patches of land to develop naturally wherever possible.

According to Bianchi and Allison Wells, it is essential to keep all bird feeders and baths as clean as possible. Mold can easily form on the structures, spreading lethal bird diseases like conjunctivitis and salmonella (which can’t be transferred to human beings). Bianchi and Allison Wells also recommend that people feed birds all year to attract and sustain the greatest diversity of visitors, although winter is probably the most important time to provide seeds. If you stop putting food out, it is most likely that the birds will simply move to other sources of food. Bianchi says feeders can be effectively safeguarded from pests like squirrels by baffles and proper construction.

The most important way to protect birds, says the NBFS, is to avoid using toxic chemicals on your lawn and garden. According to the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, pesticides used on farmlands kill 67 million birds each year. Home applications of chemicals—especially diazinon and chlorpyrifos—may be an even greater threat to many birds, says Sue Wells. Jean Coffinberry, product developer for Wild Wings Organic Wild Bird Foods, says, "Birds have delicate immune systems. Pesticides kill them outright or weaken their overall health." Bianchi suggests natural alternatives or spot applications for lawn care.

Wild Wings offers a complete range of organic, third-party certified bird foods. The company’s millet seeds attract small birds and groundfeeders such as doves, finches and chickadees; hemp seeds entice cardinals, grosbeaks and nuthatches; and black-oil sunflower seeds are popular with a large variety of birds. Premium mixes are also available. Trials suggest that birds prefer organic to conventional seeds, which is not surprising considering the host of chemical pesticides and fumigants typically used in bird food production. "Our growers aren’t damaging the environment, and we only use wholesome, premium ingredients," says Coffinberry. Wild Birds Unlimited and Country Fare also sell organic bird food.

Sue Wells, however, says it isn’t necessary to buy organic bird food. "It isn’t the birdseed that is affecting the birds," she says. "Even if the crops get sprayed, by the time the seeds are harvested and packaged, they aren’t dangerous to birds." Allison Wells adds that it has never been proven that conventional bird food is toxic.

While millions of people will continue to enjoy watching and feeding wild birds, a growing market for organic birdseed and decreasing applications of pesticides will help make sure we don’t end up with silent springs.