How Feeding Backyard Birds Influences Wild Bird Populations

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

feeding backyard birds

Story at-a-glance -

  • Feeding birds can help bird populations in many ways, including improving the number of birds that survive over winter, increasing population sizes in some species and helping birds to expand their geographic ranges
  • There’s also a potential for negative effects to occur from bird feeding, including an increased risk of disease spread and being attacked by predators
  • More than two-thirds of the study participants said they would alter the amount of feed they put out in response to increases in the number of birds in their yard; such changes, in turn, could lead to a positive feedback loop of more feed leading to more birds, and on and on
  • While 84% of the participants said they would scare away a cat near their bird feeders, only 14% said they would scare off a hawk
  • More than 57 million U.S. households feed backyard birds, spending more than $4 billion each year on bird food in the process

More than 57 million U.S. households feed backyard birds, including me, and we spend more than $4 billion each year on bird food in the process.1 This practice is so widespread that it's become one of the most common ways humans interact with wildlife, and although most people do so in order to help birds, humans may be inadvertently influencing conservation in the process.

Feeding birds can help bird populations in many ways, including improving the number of birds that survive over winter, increasing population sizes in some species and helping birds to expand their geographic ranges. However, there's also a potential for negative effects to occur, including an increased risk of disease spread and being attacked by predators.2

Researchers from Virginia Tech were interested in how humans who feed and observe birds may ultimately influence nature, so they partnered with Project FeederWatch, a citizen science project managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, to find out.

Observing Backyard Birds May Influence Humans' Emotions and Actions Toward Nature

Project FeederWatch asks people to count and observe birds that visit feeders in backyards, nature centers, community centers and other locations throughout North America.3

Data from more than 1,100 of the participants was used as part of the featured study, revealing that people not only noticed important changes in their backyards as a result of feeding birds but also made decisions based on them. For instance, most people said they noticed an increase in the number of birds at their feeders, a cat or hawk near the feeders or sick birds by the feeders. According to the study:4

"Overwhelmingly, respondents reported taking actions, such as as managing predators or maintaining feeders, in response to observable natural factors (e.g. increased incidence of disease, the presence of predators, increased bird abundance).

Additionally, respondents described a variety of emotional responses to the scenarios of depredation or disease at their feeders, some of which (particularly anger) had a small association with whether a respondent would take action in response."

When the participants noticed a cat by their birdfeeder, for instance, most of them felt angry and scared the cat away. When sick birds were observed, most people cleaned their feeders, and when more birds were seen, most people added more food to their feeders.

"From my 17 years working with people who feed birds as part of citizen science projects, I've heard a great deal about their impactful observations at their feeders," said co-author David Bonter, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in a news release, adding:5

"This study provides important information about the breadth and pattern of these experiences through responses of over 1,000 participants. The findings will help us at Project Feederwatch improve how we work with bird watchers toward our shared goal of bird conservation."

How Are Humans Affecting Bird Conservation?

This is a question that remains to be answered, but it's clear that humans may be altering bird behavior and health without even realizing it. More than two-thirds of the study participants said they would alter the amount of feed they put out in response to increases in the number of birds in their yard. Such changes, in turn, could lead to a positive feedback loop of more feed leading to more birds, and on and on.

Interestingly, time and money were not primary factors that people considered when deciding how much to feed birds. Instead, natural factors were the primary motivations, such as whether the weather was cold. With increased numbers of birds as a result of increased feeding, however, comes an increased risk of infections and may attract more predators to the area.

Disinfecting bird feeders (and watering stations) regularly to control disease is super important, as is choosing mycotoxin-free, healthy seed mixes to feed. Deciding what food to provide depends on what species you're looking to attract, so consider looking at some birdseed review sites before going to your local big-box store to buy a bulk seed product.

Meanwhile, while 84% of the participants said they would scare away a cat near their bird feeders, only 14% said they would scare off a hawk. However, 46% said they would take some type of action, including providing a shelter or protection for smaller birds.

"Here, we report evidence that people observe several components of nature that are potentially linked to their bird feeding behavior, and further, the majority have or would take action in response to these observations," the researchers noted,6 showing that people who feed birds are playing a small, or perhaps not-so-small, part in bird conservation.

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You Can Be a Citizen Scientist and Observe Backyard Birds

If you're interested in taking part in Project FeederWatch,7 the 2019 to 2020 season begins in November. To take part, you'll need to install a bird feeder, count the birds that visit and enter data for the project's scientists. The goal is to gather information about the wintering ranges of different bird species, including whether gradual changes are taking place among them.

Data from citizen scientist projects such as this can reveal long-term population declines that can lead to improved conservation efforts. Such was the case with the winter population of Painted buntings in Florida. After FeederWatch data showed a steady decline, it led to the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission starting a monitoring program to help protect the species.8

Whether you're a bird lover, a nature lover or both, providing feed for birds in your backyard is an altruistic act that may be helping bird species while at the same time providing you with an opportunity to view wildlife in your own backyard. Ultimately, however, it remains to be seen how this widespread human behavior is changing the course of nature.

"Additionally," the researchers noted, "our results demonstrate that most people believe their feeding activities have a positive impact on birds; yet, the consequences of providing supplemental food may vary depending upon the species of interest and context (e.g. location, time of year, local predator community)."9