Science

Bird Feeders Might Not Be Very Good for Birds

Backyard seed buffets are well meaning—but they can end up harming the very creatures they allegedly serve.

A bird feeder and a bunch of birds against a blue background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mark Timberlake/Unsplash, Gary Bendig/Unsplash, Nandkumar Patel/Unsplash, Jeffrey Kelso/Unsplash, and Aleksei Zaitcev/Unsplash.

More than 50 million Americans feed birds, but let’s face it: We do it for us, not for them.

A bird feeder brings feathered creatures to your yard for easy viewing, no binoculars required. Over time, birds might get used to you, and a few special ones might land near you, heads cocked adorably for gifts of seed, a glimmer of a Disney princess moment.

“The birds don’t need the feeders. We do,” Paul Baicich wrote in Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce and Conservation.

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Just as most fairy tales are derived from darker, grimmer backstories, however, bird feeding also isn’t entirely innocent do-gooding for our feathered friends. Our gifts can be poisoned, both for the birds and for us. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we interact with animals for my book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. Our relationship with other species often comes down to food. Rats feed on trash we provide, deer and squirrels on the gardens we obligingly plant. Even elephants help themselves to local fields of corn. The more they eat, the more annoyed we get, and eventually, charming woodland creatures become pests.

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Bird feeders, though, are a little different. They do not make birds into nuisances. But they can make them worse off, as well as cause problems for other creatures. If you delight in feeding birds, it’s worth considering how you could do it better—or if you should actually have a bird feeder at all.

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For starters, when was the last time you cleaned your bird feeder? Yeah, I thought so. Crowds of birds at bird feeders are a bit like Coachella during COVID. Except in this crowd, no one is toilet trained. Birds poop and drop seed. Germs can spread in the fluids, and in large crowds of birds all tweeting at top volume. “It’s a big crowd of birds, just like we’d think in humans: You know, you’re in a big crowd; you might be more likely to spread or get coronavirus or a flu or a cold,” says Kevin McGraw, a behavioral ecologist at Arizona State University. Lots of different species crowd feeders as well, making it more likely birds will spread diseases from one species to another.

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If you fill a bird feeder consistently, you can get the birds into the habit of coming to a particular spot in your yard. This is good for bird viewing—and also for predators to learn about the bird buffet. Supplying birdseed “daily for a long period of time can be an attractant to predators of the birds because they’re so abundant,” says McGraw. It’s not hard to imagine a resourceful cat waiting patiently below a bird feeder.

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People often put birdseed near windows, too, to watch from the comfort of home. That’s great for you (and your indoor cats) but bad for birds. Birds aren’t good at telling what’s glass and what’s not, and a bird feeder near a window can increase collisions.

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There are a few ways to avoid, or at least lessen, these problems: Clean your feeder with a 10-percent bleach solution every few weeks, don’t feed birds daily, and don’t put the feeder somewhere with nearby panes of glass. And during times of big disease outbreaks, feeders may need to come down completely.

But bird feeders can cause problems for more than just birds. Birdseed is the gateway drug for human-bear conflict, explains Dan Gibbs, the black bear program leader at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Birdseed might look unappetizing to us, but it’s basically unprocessed seed butter—the energy bar of bear food. “This time of year especially, bears are trying to fit in a lot of calories,” Gibbs says. He’s not kidding: A black bear preparing for hibernation needs around 20,000 calories per day. (The Rock could never!)

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For those bears, birdseed is a jackpot. “A pound of black oil sunflowers is equivalent to a pound of acorns,” Gibbs says. Acorns are on the ground for only a short period, and the bear has to wander around to snaffle them all up. But a full bird feeder is basically a bucket of acorns and can contain up to 18,000 calories.

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If you discover a bear is raiding your bird feeder and you remove it, a bear accustomed to getting a meal from your property may still come back to search for food. “Now you’re going to try to lock the stuff up, and they’ll start tearing things up,” Gibbs says. Bears will continue to follow their noses—into your shed, your garage, and, eventually, your house. This often doesn’t end well for the bears. Bear biologists will try to relocate them first, but killing bears is part of their jobs too. Gibbs puts down more than a dozen per year. “It’s not what we get up in the morning to do,” he says. “But public safety is paramount if we have to put the bear down because of what it’s doing.”

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In bear country, Gibbs says, he recommends feeding birds only in the deep winter, when bears are not active, about two months out of the year. Even then, he says, watch out for warm days. Black bears don’t hibernate deeply, and they might stretch their legs and get a snack.

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If you live in a city, you might heave a sigh of relief. You don’t have bears!

But you might have rats.

We usually think of bird feeders as attracting squirrels, and we generally feel OK about that. (Though, let’s face it: Squirrels are really tree rats with good PR.) Where regular rats exist, they are just as thrilled as squirrels to find your bird feeder, especially because birds are messy eaters who throw lots of seed on the ground. And once rats establish themselves, as with bears, even removing the feeder might not be enough to make them leave the area.

If you do have rats, bears—or, God forbid, both—bird feeders might be out of the question. But there are other ways to bring birds to your yard, says Michelle Dennehy, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. You can plant native plants that birds like—sunflowers and coneflowers attract seed eaters, and trumpet-shaped flowers attract hummingbirds. Audubon even has a search engine to show you the best native plants for your zip code.

You also don’t have to lure birds with food. Birds need water, and they also like to keep clean. A birdbath (which you should keep clean so it doesn’t get scummy) and a dust-bath area can be draws just as tempting as a feeder. Luckily, bears and rats do not like dust baths. Nesting boxes can attract birds too—and then you get baby birds as a bonus.

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