In seedy neighborhoods across the U.S., ordinary people are shelling out hard-earned cash to feed a habit of near-epidemic proportions.
The fact of the matter is, about 40% of American households are addicted to feeding birds. Things are even worse in the U.K., where close to three-quarters of the population are beset with this malady.
In severe cases, people may provide birds with dried fruit, suet, mealworms and other foods, but most bird-feed addicts go for seed, a tough habit to crack. It often starts innocently: a few sunflower kernels strewn in the backyard or a crust of bread thrown to waterfowl. But these so-called gateway activities can quickly escalate, and decent folk may soon find themselves sneaking out on Saturday mornings for a weekly fix of thistle seeds, millet, milo or suet.
The question is, why would anyone want to? Watching native songbirds at a backyard feeder is a soothing pastime, and especially during winter, it provides “cheep” entertainment. For children it can be educational, as well as a means for them to connect with the natural world in rural and urban areas alike. And during harsh weather like extreme cold or ice storms, bird feeders can make a real difference in terms of survival. A Wisconsin study found that even in an average winter, survival of black-capped chickadees increased from 37% to 69% when they had access to feeders.
Even though feeding birds is on the whole very beneficial, it can pose hidden risks. Feeders bring together various bird species that would not normally have contact with one another, and tend to attract them in high numbers. Under such conditions, pathogens can be readily passed around. Recent outbreaks of mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, a contagious eye disease, and a deadly respiratory illness called trichomoniasis, have killed thousands of songbirds. Aspergillosis and avian flu are other potential dangers.
Fortunately, these risks can be minimized, beginning with basic food-safety standards. I like a free all-you-can-eat buffet as much as the next person, but if no one cleaned the salad bar or washed the steam trays for months on end, my enthusiasm would start to wane. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology recommends scrubbing bird feeders, followed by a 10% bleach solution rinse, every two weeks.
A virtue in other contexts, inclusiveness is a problem in bird feeding. The Audubon Society points out that birdseed mixes lead to excessive waste and spoilage, a source of contamination. It is best to maintain a separate feeder for each type of seed. Not only does this cut down on waste, it reduces the number of species at each unit, helping to curb disease transmission.
Black oil sunflower seed is like watermelon at a picnic—everyone in the neighborhood is going to line up for it. If you have just one feeder, black oil seed will attract the widest variety of birds. Its popularity can occasionally lead to problems when bullies such as blackbirds hog the feeder and kick out other species. If that is the case, try switching to striped sunflower seed, which are not as attractive to grackles, starlings and cowbirds. The only thing is that striped seed may be harder for smaller birds like chickadees and nuthatches to open.
Thistle seed, also called Niger or Nyjer, is a tiny oil-rich seed favored by goldfinches, house and purple finches, redpolls and pine siskins. Because thistle requires a special feeder with narrow openings, jays and blackbirds can’t get at it. Don’t worry about having a yard full of thistles, though—Niger seed is heat-treated and will not sprout.
Cardinals and grosbeaks are fans of safflower seed, which has a hard shell and is therefore (at least slightly) less attractive to squirrels. Safflower is typically presented in tray-type feeders. White millet is eaten by juncos, cardinals, mourning doves and other ground-feeding birds. It is often spread on the ground or in tray feeders.
Cracked or whole corn will bring in larger species like grosbeaks, crows, grouse and turkeys. Unfortunately, it is also more attractive to deer, raccoons, and bears than other types of bird food. The big problem with corn is that, as outlined in a Cornell Ornithology Lab factsheet, “Corn is the bird food most likely to be contaminated with aflatoxins, which are extremely toxic even at low levels. Never buy corn in plastic bags, never allow it to get wet; never offer it in amounts that can’t be consumed in a day…” Peanuts are another item that often harbors these toxins.
One other source of illness is spoiled bread and other people-food put out for birds. Cornell, Audubon, and other birding groups strongly warn against the practice.
The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, started in 1900, relies on volunteers to tally birds in their area. The results of this year’s count have not yet been made public, but Jeff Bolsinger, coordinator of the Canton-Potsdam bird count, said his group identified 41 species, down from the typical 45 to 50 species. Population-wise, starlings and rock pigeons topped the list, but the group also spotted black-capped chickadees, American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos, American robins, northern cardinals, white-breasted nuthatches, and various woodpeckers in significant numbers.
I’m all for efficiency, but no one wants to run a combination bird/ cat/ squirrel feeding station. A recent innovation has made it easy to reduce feline delinquency. Instead of belling the cat, you just give it an ugly collar, or “bib.” Birds, it turns out, are apparently quite fashion-sensitive, and will flee from garish colors and clashing patterns. Studies show that loud attire reduces predation far more effectively than bells.
As for squirrels, which by the way will eat birds if they get a chance, it is not so simple. I have had two squirrel-resistant feeders for about fifteen years, and to date they have never been breached by a fluffy-tailed rodent. Squirrels have chewed on the metal grate and even cut the line holding the feeders, but nothing more. Of course if they come to glean spilled seed, they are hard to stop. Except maybe with a cat.
Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.