Natural Perspective — For the birds

Feb. 13, 2019 — With temperatures dipping, it’s a good time to stay indoors, perhaps clutching some hot chocolate by a fire. While doing so, you may feel sorry for the little birds hopping about outside and decide to offer them food. Although our local species are adapted to cope with our climate, winter can be a challenging time for birds as food resources are scarcer and keeping warm in low temperatures requires extra energy.

Anyone who enjoys feeding backyard birds probably notices their feeders increasing in popularity during cold weather. In our area, juncos, chickadees and other small birds often descend in droves, sometimes emptying feeders within hours.

In some ways, such feeding is beneficial. Studies have shown that supplementing birds’ natural food sources with feeders can increase health and boost winter survival.

There are also benefits for humans as bird watching is fun pastime and attracting certain birds may help with insect control. However, if not done responsibly, there are potential downsides to feeding wild birds.

While offering seeds, nuts or suet can be helpful to birds, feeding bread should be avoided. Indeed, the popular childhood activity of visiting a duck pond with a loaf of bread can actually be detrimental. For birds, bread is like a junk food: it has relatively little nutritional value, and a bird filling up on bread may have a reduced appetite for nutritious foods. Additionally, diets high in carbohydrates can lead to wing deformities that affect flight.

Beyond the type of food on offer, feeder hygiene can affect birds’ health. Feeders can harbor harmful mold and bacteria. This is a particular concern if the food has become damp, which easily happens in our climate. Feeders can also spread disease among birds simply by bringing many individuals together in one place. To reduce these risks, feeders should be regularly cleaned. Simply taking them apart and running them through the dishwasher is usually sufficient.

Another common hazard to birds visiting feeders is your home’s windows. Particularly if there is a reflection of trees and sky, birds are prone to colliding with the glass, often fatally. To reduce such risks, try affixing decals to the window. Paper snowflakes are a seasonally fitting option, but, if you’re less artistically inclined, sticky notes work too.

So, if you’re feeding feathered friends this winter, take a moment to assess the health and safety factors. Then sit back with your cocoa and enjoy!