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Should You Feed Wild Birds In The Winter?

Aug 17, 2007
Winter weather will soon be here in many parts of the country, yet many of us enjoy our wild birds year-round. Should you continue feeding them in winter? What should you feed them, and how should you go about it?

The "conventional wisdom" has always been that you should feed wild birds in winter because their normal source of food - small seeds and insects - has dramatically diminished. But is the conventional wisdom correct? By attracting birds to our feeders, are we making them too dependent on a free source of food, and weakening their ability to find food on their own? Do we actually put birds at greater risk because of cats and flying into windows?

These are not easy questions to answer because there has been little research into the subject. However a three-year study of chickadees by the University of Wisconsin found that winter survival rates were highest among chickadee populations that were fed - but only during the harshest winters. During more moderate winters (and lower latitudes) there were no significant differences in survival rates and spring hatching rates between chickadees that were fed and those that foraged for themselves.

What if the feeders are removed? Can chickadees "remember" how to find food on their own? In a similar study, feeders were suddenly removed after conditioning the birds to feeders for many years. The birds immediately resumed feeding on their own. Again, survival rates were the same as for chickadees that were not used to feeders. While more research needs to be done, these studies indicate that feeding chickadees - and presumably, other wild birds - does not result in feeder dependency.

Some argue that feeders put birds at risk because of the presumed greater risk of predation. However, birds that eat from feeders eat more in less time than if they forage in the wild, giving them more time to watch for predators. You can minimize the risk to birds at your feeder by placing feeders where they are inaccessible by cats, and by adding tape or decals to your windows so birds won't fly into them.

That's the research. Now, if you do want to feed wild birds this winter, here are some specific things you can do to keep your wild birds well fed.

Birdscape your yard. Both deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs provide seeds and shelter. In the spring, they provide nesting places. Ornamental grasses also provide food and shelter for ground birds. Perennial flowers that have been allowed to go to seed can also provide food over the winter.

Provide a source of water. Wild birds need water, even in winter. Obviously, freezing is an issue, so a heater is a necessity. Also, birds like moving water, and water jigglers are available as well. Locate your bird bath where you can see it so you can enjoy watching the birds frolic in the water.

Selecting a Feeder. There is a huge variety of feeders on the market, but some are better than others. Steel, aluminum, plastic or glass feeders have an advantage over wood because they are easier to keep clean and will probably last longer. Look for feeders with metal components and feeding ports, as they will last longer than plastic.

The feeder should keep the food dry in wet weather. Feeders are available with domes or roofs that will help keep the food dry. If the feeder is a platform style (as opposed to a tube style) make sure there are drain holes in the bottom.

Squirrels and Raccoons are a constant problem, as they will empty a feeder, denying your wild birds their food. They will destroy a wood or plastic feeder by chewing though it, so the additional cost of a well-made feeder is money well spent. Some squirrel-proof feeders are quite effective, but proper installation is the real key to keeping moochers off your feeders.

Maintaining your feeder. The most important part of maintaining your feeder is ensuring that the food is fresh and clean. A huge feeder with a "ten pound capacity" is not necessary or even desirable because it is likely the food will spoil before it is eaten. Some very good tube feeders will hold a lot of food, but the purpose of the long tube is to prevent squirrels from hanging from the top, not for huge food capacity.

After a rain or period of damp weather, inspect your feeders and discard any food that has gotten wet. Wet food will coagulate in the feeder, blocking food from naturally dropping to the feeding ports. Also, wet food is a breeding ground for algae and mold that will discourage birds from eating and may make them sick.

Set up more than one feeder with different types of food - perhaps sunflower seeds in one, and finch food in another.

Your feeders should be installed to minimize the chances of predation. The primary preditors are cats, so the feeder must be installed so that cats cannot climb or jump to the feeding area.

Bottom line - don't feel you are doing your birds harm by feeding them during the winter. Follow the above suggestions, and you can enjoy your wild birds all winter long.
About the Author
Janet Winter is a web designer, owner of three e-commerce sites, and writer on many topics including the Internet and travel. Her e-commerce sites are: WildBirdGoodies.com , WelcomeBabyGifts.com and APamperedDog.com .
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