Feeding Wild Birds Responsibly

On March 19, 2009, the US Department of the Interior released a new report on the national “State of the Birds.” The report states that “(b)irds are bellwethers of our natural and cultural health as a nation… The results are sobering: bird populations in many habitats are declining-a warning signal of the failing health of our ecosystems.” Considering that conservation efforts have been going on for at least the last 50+ years (since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), this is indeed a sobering report. Obviously our conservation efforts were too little, too late.

According the Report, 75 million Americans, 1 in every 4 consider themselves birdwatchers. In excess of 50 million are feeding wild birds. In spite of so much interest and support, loss of habitat continues unabated in the rush to develop more land. Natural nesting sites and food resources are lost. To help stop the decline the single most important thing we can do as individuals is restore natural habitat on our own property. Take an active, responsible role in managing your habitat. If you manage property, you are managing habitat and wildlife.

Why Feed Wild Birds?

People are feeding wild birds for a variety of reasons including entertainment, relaxation, observing and/or studying nature, provide meaningful support to local populations, and so on. As stated above, many wild bird populations are declining. Reasons for the declines include habitat loss, environmental degradation, seasonal changes, local weather, climate change, inadequate forage, and so on. Wild birds have a relatively high metabolic rate that requires food on a regular and consistent basis. Many birds die during the winter, during droughts, cold spells, prolonged rains, and any other conditions that reduce the availability of forage leading to stress,weakness, reduced resistance to disease and parasites, and starvation. Feeding wild birds can help sustain populations when natural food supplies are hard to find.

Feeding Preferences of Wild Birds

Whether your goal is just to attract wild birds to a feeding station for your own enjoyment or to provide birds with the minimum nutrients they need for optimum health and reproduction, feeding preferences of birds are very important in determining what type of food products will best meet your needs.

In general, wild birds can be grouped together by the types of feed they eat. This does not necessarily mean that granivores (seed-eaters), for example, eat only seed. Granivores prefer seed to other foods and specific types of seed to others. Since it is rare in nature to find a food that is readily and always available, it is important to remember that most birds select food in order of their preferences.

While there are a number of types of feed, feeding wild birds usually involves only four:

a. Granivores – seed or grain feeders like finches and sparrows. Many seeds and seed mixes are available for


b. Frugivores – fruit feeders like tanagers. There are dehydrated fruit products for frugivores.

c. Insectivores – insect feeders like blue birds and woodpeckers. There are a number of live and dehydrated

insect products.

d. Nectarivores – nectar feeders like hummingbirds. There are several commercial nectar diets available.

In addition to the importance of feeding preferences when feeding wild birds, feeding behaviors of wild birds should be considered when selecting feeders. Some wild birds including robins and doves forage on the ground. Others like woodpeckers and nuthatches forage on the bark of trees. Goldfinches and other granivores forage on the seed heads of grasses.

Casual Bird Feeding

The vast majority of people who are feeding wild birds are casual participants. For them feeding wild birds is primarily a part time activity involving offering wild birds treats and enjoying the benefits of watching their behaviors. The casual participant is one who may on impulse, while shopping at the supermarket, grab a bag of seed or a suet cake. They do not feel any responsibility for feeding wild birds anything more then bird candy. Wild birds are free to forage for their own nutritional needs. If your interest in feeding wild birds is casual, there is an entire industry devoted to meeting your needs. The primary function of the products offered is to bait or draw birds to a feeding site designed to provide maximum visibility for your viewing pleasure. All the feed products including seeds, seed mixes, suet products, and other specialty products are formulated for their ability to attract birds. Nutritional value is not a consideration. Seeds, seed mixes, and suet products offer at best incidental, supplemental nutrition. Even if it were possible to formulate a seed mix that met all the nutritional requirements of birds, it would fail because birds will preferentially select only the seeds they like, the most preferred being oil-type sunflower seed. Seed preference studies have demonstrated time after time that, oil-type sunflower seed, white proso millet, and Nyjer® are the preferred seeds of most species of birds that frequent feeders.

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