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Responsible Backyard Birdfeeding

Responsible Backyard Birdfeeding

By Jon Friedman

Regardless of where you call home – whether you own or rent a single family home; live in an apartment, condo or townhouse; or occupy a manufactured home or travel widely in an RV – you can always feed birds wherever you live. Most birders simply enjoy having birds nearby and awaking to their call and songs. We may think of ourselves as amateur naturalists and want to encourage conservation in the natural world we live in. Or, perhaps we just want to provide a helping hand and make life a little better for our bird friends. Others want to learn more about the birds that share our environment.

Many birders are inspired to learn more about identification, classification, and natural histories of our feathered friends. For some, birding can become a serious hobby and a strong interest. For others, it is a casual interest among many others. Birding, however, is fun and stimulating for almost all who give it try – from children being introduced to it with their first pair of binoculars and field guide to adults who have many years of experience observing birds.
For most of us, attracting and feeding wild birds is among the easiest of activities we undertake which keeps us in touch with nature on a daily basis, particularly as urban dwellers. Regardless of your reasons you feed and provide for your wild birds, or where you live, we must not overlook or lose sight of keeping the birds best interests in mind. Above all else, we must strive to do no harm to our wild birds just because we want to see and enjoy them.

While we receive great pleasure watching our wild birds feed, bathe, breed, nest, and interact in our yards, we must remember that, within any given species, life is a very serious and challenging struggle to exist. Throughout their adult lives, wild birds spend their entire daylight hours foraging for food, always alert and watchful for a whole host of predators and dangerous situations, keeping healthy, forming family bonds, caring for their young, etc. This is strenuous, exhausting and unending work, day in and day out, day after day. Unfortunately for them, the birds do not enjoy much leisure time. So, it is very important to give the birds the best assistance we can provide them. Trying to think like a bird, or understanding the world from their viewpoint, will assist us in making the wisest choices for them.

When it comes to feeding birds we need to keep in mind that all species have their preferences of foods. We need to become familiar with preferences if we are to be successful in attracting and feeding them. Non-seed eating birds, such as colorful orioles and tanagers, will not be enticed to seed feeders. They are fruit and insect eaters, primarily. (Orioles also enjoy nectar as much as hummingbirds do.) Likewise, cardinals, Pyrrhuloxia and grosbeaks have a strong preference for all sunflower seeds and safflower. Goldfinches and siskins are attracted to Nyjer thistle. Knowing what foods various species prefer is essential to helping attract those species to your yard. Simply put, the wider the variety of foods we properly provide, and providing the right feeder to deliver that food, the wider the variety of species we can attract.  

Another important thought we should remember is not to overcrowd the birds. It is better to have several smaller feeders spread out from each other rather than to have one large feeder to try to satisfy all the birds from a single location. If possible, we should try to avoid creating feeding frenzies which force all the birds to compete together at the same time, in the same place, for the same food. This never happens in nature and if we force this type of frenzied overcrowded behavior, we are actually causing the birds harm that you may not realize. By forcing the birds into overcrowded and competitive feeding behavior, they easily become stressed and overstressed birds become ill, become susceptible to heart attacks, and some will die as a result. Their lives are so short, compared to humans, that we should do what we can to avoid creating this type of stress in their lives.


We need to better understand the behavior and habits that dictate what, how and why birds do what they do. Perching birds, for example, need to feed above ground level, so providing a hanging or mounted feeder will encourage and enable them to eat in a more natural manner. Ground feeding birds will appreciate their food scattered out on the ground. Spreading the ground feed over several feet, or in more than one area, is far superior to making all compete in close conditions for a single pile of food.

Transmission of avian diseases is greatly reduced or eliminated by not creating overcrowded, stressful conditions that the birds are forced to compete in. Selective feeders, such as dove-proof and pigeon-proof feeders, will cater to smaller and mid-sized birds thereby eliminating the competition from the larger birds. Species-specific feeders will allow only the designated or desired bird species to feed. This sets up ideal conditions for the intended species as well as for their human observers.

No matter what type of feeder designs you choose to use, be sure to keep the seed dry and the feeder clean. All feeders need to be cleaned, some more or less frequently than others. Hummingbird feeders need to be particularly clean and cleaning them should be done as frequently as the nectar is changed- every three days or twice a week. Seed feeders should be cleaned on some regular schedule or on an as needed basis. Accumulation of shells and debris underneath feeders should periodically be cleaned as well.  

Providing fresh water for our wild birds, particularly in our hot and arid climate, is as important as providing fresh food. We should be sure that the water we provide isn’t too deep (babies can easily drown), is fresh daily (just like for your pet cats and dogs), and the bird baths are clean and algae free. Otherwise, we will cause harm instead of benefit if the water is fouled and/or not changed daily. Remember, birds both drink and bathe from the same water source, so keeping it clean and fresh daily is essential to their overall good health.

These are simple responsibilities we must undertake in order to enjoy our birdwatching and ensure we are not inadvertently causing harm to them. They give us much pleasure so we should return the favor by being good stewards and practice responsible birdfeeding. My dad used to tell me that anything worth doing, is worth doing well. By putting this philosophy into action, we are creating a win-win situation for all to enjoy.

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