Feeding birds is a cherished nature pastime in the United States, the UK, and Canada. It brings the wonders of the wild right to our backyards, allowing us to marvel at the beauty and behaviors of our feathered friends up close. Plus, there’s the satisfaction of knowing we’re contributing to wildlife’s well-being!
But have you ever wondered about the impact of bird feeding? What about the recent concerns regarding disease outbreaks? And do you know where the birdseed you use comes from?
Join us in this episode as we delve into the world of bird feeding with insights from experts in the field: Dr. Emma Greig from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Dr. Alex Lees from Manchester Metropolitan University, Dr. Doug Tallamy (see last week’s episode for much more from Dr. Tallamy!), and Mary Phillips. They’ll help our host, Griff Griffith, unravel the mysteries, so you can feel confident that your bird feeding habits are indeed making a positive difference for our avian companions.
Beyond a podcast, Jumpstart Nature is a movement fueled by volunteers, igniting a fresh approach to reconnecting people with the natural world. In the face of our pressing climate and biodiversity challenges, we’re on a mission to help you discover newfound purpose and motivation.
For even deeper nature insights, delve into our companion podcast, Nature’s Archive.
Links to Topics Discussed
Full Nature’s Archive Interview with Dr. Emma Greig “From Fairywrens to FeederWatch“
Killing with kindness: Does widespread generalised provisioning of wildlife help or hinder biodiversity conservation efforts? – scientific paper by Jack Shutt and Alex Lees
Project FeederWatch – Begins on November 1!
3 Billion Birds Gone – the detailed study that determined that we’ve lost 3 billion birds since 1970.
Links to Additional Resources
Seven Actions to help birds
This podcast episode was written and produced by Michael Hawk. Our host is Griff Griffith. Michelle Balderston is our associate producer.
Some of the music used in this production is through creative commons licensing:
The following music was used for this media project: Music: Imagefilm 033 by Sascha Ende Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/535-imagefilm-033 License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license Music: Cinematic Suspense Series Episode 009 by Sascha Ende Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/8224-cinematic-suspense-series-episode-009 License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license Music: Lofi Prairie by Brian Holtz Music Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/9247-lofi-prairie License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license Music: Stranded by Brian Holtz Music Free download: https://filmmusic.io/song/7247-stranded License (CC BY 4.0): https://filmmusic.io/standard-license
Transcript (Click to View)
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[00:00:00] Griff Griffith: Do you have a bird feeder in your backyard or know someone who does? It’s quite likely that the answer is yes. In the United States alone, bird feeding has become a soaring $4 billion industry, and it’s even more popular in the uk.
[00:00:17] Why not? Feeding birds is a great way to experience wildlife up close. We all love novelty and what’s better than a surprising flash of color from a unique bird, just a few feet outside of your window
[00:00:30] and the science is clear.
[00:00:31] Connectedness with nature Is important for our health and wellbeing, and it just feels good to help other creatures.
[00:00:37] Here’s the twist Feeding birds in our backyards has many unintended consequences. Most of us may even be feeding birds the wrong way,
[00:00:46] KGW TV Reporter: Symptoms are consistent with salmonella. It spreads easily at feeders since birds return over and over to the same spot.
[00:00:58] Griff Griffith: And I was surprised to learn that there is way more to this story. There are just so many unexpected impacts of feeding birds. Sometimes it seems like we need feeders more than the birds do.
[00:01:10] Don’t worry though. we’ve interviewed some experts and did a little research, so you don’t have to. Now, let’s figure this out together.
[00:01:17] I’m Griff Griffith, and welcome to Jumpstart Nature.
[00:01:30] Michael Hawk: Oh, this is a really fun one. Look over there in the Bush. It’s going to come in. Here it comes. And look, it takes a seed and it leaves.
[00:01:39] And give it a second here and it will come back.
[00:01:42] Here it comes. Can I get one more seed and leave?
[00:01:46] Griff Griffith: That’s jumpstart nature’s founder Michael, describing an oak titmouse at his feeder. You can just hear the excitement and after watching for a while, you will notice that every bird has different lifestyles and behaviors. The oak titmouse, for example. Seems almost polite too. I mean, the way it grabs one seed flies away to either eat it or stash it and then returns for another.
[00:02:07] Some birds may only eat seeds off the ground. Others love to cling to the feeder, and still others will only land on a stable platform to eat. This explains all the different types of bird feeders you see at the store
[00:02:18] Dr. Emma Greig: You can just put a little tray of seed on your back porch and actually bring nature right to your window and be able to see, oh, these are some of the birds that are around.
[00:02:27] Griff Griffith: That is Dr. Emma Greig. Dr. Greig is with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is broadly considered the epicenter for bird research in the United States. She oversees project Feeder Watch, an annual community science effort to document which birds show up in people’s yards. in fact, you can participate in this.
[00:02:45] I’ll explain in a bit.
[00:02:47] Since the winter of 1987. 88,
[00:02:49] Dr. Emma Greig: , people have been counting birds for Project Feederwatch, following the exact same protocol,what this means now is that it is just this humongous, beautiful dataset of standardized observations of birds in winter
[00:03:05] Griff Griffith: with all of this data collected from regular folks like us, scientists at the Cornell Lab can detect and deduce all sorts of things such as which birds are showing up in specific locations, and if their populations are increasing or decreasing, or if a species range, the area which they live is changing.
[00:03:23] But this brings up a great point. This dataset only tracks birds that visit feeders.
[00:03:29] Dr. Emma Greig: FeederWatch is not an ideal data set if you want to study, say, population trends in :red-eyed vireos, a little insectivorous, migratory bird, that’s probably not going to be around your feeder.
[00:03:42] Griff Griffith: I was surprised to learn just how few bird species visit feeders at all.
[00:03:47] Dr. Alex Lees: a majority of songbirds are actually insectivorous So bird feeding only ever helps a relatively small number of species
[00:03:55] Griff Griffith: that’s Dr. Alex Lees co-author of a 2021 paper that looked at bird feeding and human provisioning of other resources such as bird, baths, nesting boxes, and even landfills, which serve as a human made restaurant for some birds.
[00:04:09] Various estimates indicate that 70% or more adult songbirds rely on insects at least occasionally.
[00:04:17] And Dr. Doug Tallamy an entomologist and ecologist who has looked closely at the relationships between insects and birds Emphasizes this point
[00:04:26] Doug Tallamy: Our backyard feeders are feeding, particularly the birds that spend the winter here. The ones that do not migrate. And we’ve got something like 350 species of North American birds that do migrate and they migrate south because they are insectivores. They have to go south where the insects are.
[00:04:40] and when they come north, they breed on insects. And even the, residents that spend the winter here switch to insects when they’re breeding. So if you add all that up, it’s 96% of our terrestrial bird species rear their young on insects
[00:04:55] Griff Griffith: this is an incredible revelation. Bird seed we put out only benefits a small percentage of birds, and even then, often only as adults. In fact, research done by Dr. Tallamy’s lab show that chickadees require,
[00:05:09] Doug Tallamy: 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars. Just to get them to the point where they leave the nest. And after they leave the nest, the parents continue to feed him caterpillars in another 21 days.
[00:05:18] So you’re talking about tens of thousands of caterpillars to get that one little bird that weighs a third of an ounce through to maturity
[00:05:24] Griff Griffith: That’s right. Chickadee parents have to work incredibly hard to find 9,000 caterpillars.
[00:05:30] I know I love to see birds nesting in my yard. If 96% of songbird parents are feeding nestlings insects, are feeders even helping? At this point I’m not sure So who is using our feeders?
[00:05:43] Dr. Alex Lees: so it’s often,either granivorous species, species, which, naturally eat, lots of seeds or omnivore species. Species which might eat seeds particularly in winter, and then insects more in summer. And it tends to be more resident species,
[00:05:58] Griff Griffith: So these are birds like goldfinches cardinals, jays, nuthatches, and some woodpeckers, as well as a few non-native species like house sparrows and European starlings .
[00:06:08] So these birds must be getting some benefit from this easy food, right?
[00:06:12] Dr. Alex Lees: there’s good evidence from Europe and North America that many sort of common generalists and abundant species have often become even more common and even more abundant essentially because of this provisioning of resources year round.
[00:06:27] Griff Griffith: Oh, that sounds good. More abundant birds, right? this got me thinking if resident species are doing well, populations, in some case, growing, what indirect effect does this have on migratory species?
[00:06:40] Dr. Alex Lees: it’s community ecology 1 0 1 if you like, sort of fundamental tenets of ecology that.
[00:06:45] Changes to the system. The increase in one species may lead to changes in the abundance of other species
[00:06:51] Griff Griffith: so here’s the thing, some birds are more dominant than others.
[00:06:56] They may more aggressively defend territory food sources, or even nesting holes. And it turns out that many of the resident species that are more likely to use your feeders are the more dominant ones.
[00:07:07] After all, they know their neighborhood, They’re present all year.
[00:07:11] normal situations, animals often avoid direct competition with each other.
[00:07:15] There’s a fancy word for this niche partitioning, which means that an animal develops survival strategies to avoid battles over resources like food and nesting sites.
[00:07:25] But as feeders become more widespread, it means that those dominant species are harder to avoid in a way. They create a fortress around their feeders laying claim to everything like it’s their neighborhood, their town.
[00:07:36] The losers in this situation are the less dominant and migratory birds who now find it difficult or even impossible to find motels, houses and welcoming restaurants. You know what I mean?
[00:07:47] And it’s well documented that nearly all migratory bird species are in steep decline.
[00:07:52] So what can we do? There are solutions, but looking into this, we discovered another possibly more dramatic impact of bird feeding.
[00:08:00] Linda Stratman: I was diagnosed with Salmonella. I was sick for several days, and I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
[00:08:11] Griff Griffith: That’s my mom. And a few years ago she caught salmonella, a nasty bacterial infection. How did she catch it?
[00:08:19] Every so often and with increasing frequency, there are salmonella outbreaks among finches and siskins.
[00:08:25] 2021 had a particularly bad outbreak. Pine Siskins, a small seed eating finch was hit hard. While it’s unclear how many were killed, some estimate it’s in the millions
[00:08:36] finches provide textbook examples of disease spread up feeders. They are nearly all seed eating birds and they form forging flocks, especially in winter. And if you put up feeders with the right seed, you’ll have finches nonstop.
[00:08:50] Dr. Alex Lees: a major, a direct consequence of bird feeding, has been, enhanced disease transmission. So this is something we’ve,really struggled with in Europe. basically in 2005, there was a disease crossover event, of pathogen.
[00:09:05] this, protozoan parasite called Trichomonas gallinae. it jumped from its regular hosts in game birds and pigeons, into finches, into songbirds
[00:09:15] particularly affected a species called, the European Greenfinch
[00:09:18] it led to, a sort of a 60% decline in the abundance of this species. in the UK, we lost millions of green finches it also spilled over into other species as well.
[00:09:28] Griff Griffith: Finches are particularly susceptible to several diseases from salmonella to mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, which impacts their eyes.
[00:09:36] It begs the question, do finches get so many more diseases because they can’t practice social distancing at our feeders?
[00:09:42] Dr. Emma Greig: certainly if you observe a sick bird, then it’s a good idea to, go and clean your feeders right then and there, but if you don’t observe any sick birds, we don’t have a sort of scientifically backed feeder cleaning frequency that’s going to have a, a detectable effect on bird disease spread.
[00:10:00] Griff Griffith: All right? How many of you clean your feeders? Be honest with me. Also, how many of you are watching your feeders closely enough to even recognize sick birds?
[00:10:09] Think about it for a second.
[00:10:11] Dr. Alex Lees: at these bird feeders, then we have, often 10, 15 species in some gardens might be using essentially the same bit of plastic. I think a useful analogy is, would you go to the zoo and then hand out a plate and feed , 15 different species of animals off the same plate and then lick the plate after yourself.
[00:10:38] So in nature, we wouldn’t normally have a resource which is used by all these same species throughout the year and constantly.
[00:10:46] Griff Griffith: The thought going through my head right now is, uh, spider-Man’s Uncle Ben saying, with great power comes great responsibility. Birds aren’t supernatural So if we are feeding birds or providing water, we need to clean those things just like you clean your plate or your dog’s food dish.
[00:11:01] And after you clean your feeder, clean yourself. This is how my mom caught salmonella. She may not have washed her hands well enough.
[00:11:07] Of course I now have even more questions. Like, how often should I clean my feeder? What other unexpected surprises result from bird feeding?
[00:11:17] And is there a better way to support our birds?
[00:11:20] Dr. Greig mentioned there isn’t good scientific data on cleaning frequency. This simply means that researchers haven’t been able to isolate or compare disease spread in populations that use feeders versus those who don’t.
[00:11:34] Dr. Emma Greig: The state of knowledge right now I think is that we say to clean your feeders if you see sick birds.
[00:11:39] And we have a kind of course recommendation for every couple of weeks, but I think we really want to nail that down a lot better
[00:11:47] Griff Griffith: Dr. Lees has a slightly different perspective.
[00:11:50] Dr. Alex Lees: number one is keeping those. Feeders as, as clean as possible. That’s, not putting out too much food, so you have to throw it in that way. And then cleaning that on a, near daily basis. that’s the recommendations coming out of here are, every few days.
[00:12:03] Griff Griffith: On near daily basis? Well, in the UK, bird feeding is perhaps more popular than the United States. And remember the people population density is much higher.
[00:12:12] It is an island after all, so bird feeding has a bigger impact than we see in the US, and the recommendations are accordingly, more aggressive,
[00:12:20] our recommendation, regardless of where you live, is to be proactive. Don’t wait for an outbreak before you start cleaning your feeder and stay up to speed with the news from your local bird organization so you can be alerted if a disease outbreak is detected.
[00:12:34] And remember, the same goes for bird baths, clean them.
[00:12:38] Michael Hawk: So one day I looked outside, it must’ve been 1:00 PM, 2:00 PM, something like that. And there was a rat under my feeder in broad daylight, which obviously was a surprise. And it reminded me a little bit of the constant battle that we have with squirrels to keep them off of our feeders. But I was curious why a rat in the middle of day.
[00:13:04] Griff Griffith: In Michael’s case, someone in the neighborhood had poisoned that rat, and in its last hours of confusion, it was seeking food and water.
[00:13:11] That’s what they usually do, seek water. By the way, rat poison is terrible, just terrible for our wildlife. Without Michael’s action, it’s likely a hawk or owl would’ve eaten that rat and became poisoned too
[00:13:23] But regardless, all animals seek out easy meals. So if you decide to put bird feeders out, you need to think about this. You may get rats really quickly or other animals.
[00:13:34] Rats are one thing, but
[00:13:36] Dr. Emma Greig: if bears are the thing that you’re attracting, take those feeders right down. Stop feeding them until the bears are hibernating, because it’s just so dangerous for people and for the bears if they get habituated to food that people are providing.
[00:13:49] Griff Griffith: You might laugh at the notion, but I’ve seen countless YouTube videos of bears raiding bird feeders, and unfortunately, as the saying goes, a fed bear is a dead bear. Bears and many other animals get habituated to human handouts. , intentional or unintentional.
[00:14:05] And this brings them into conflict that rarely has a good outcome.
[00:14:08] And there are lots of ways to reduce the chances of attracting rats, mice, or other unintended visitors.
[00:14:14] For one, don’t let old food accumulate under the feeder. Clean it up. Take feeding breaks on occasion. Like just put your feeder in the garage for a month. So the seed eating animals don’t set up shop in or around your house. If nothing else, at least move your feeders around the yard.
[00:14:31] You might try different styles of feeders that don’t spill as much and use high quality seeds such as black oil, sunflower seed. Many seed mixes have millet or other seeds that birds simply don’t want, and they’ll kick ’em outta the feeder, but rodents will happily eat it.. speaking of seeds,
[00:14:47] Dr. Alex Lees: some of that bird food is grown as far away as in West Africa Now, is it sensible, for instance, to farm bird food and then move that halfway across the world to feed a very common bird species
[00:14:58] Griff Griffith: Bird seed is an agricultural crop and we tend to assume it’s sustainably grown. Wouldn’t that be nice? But is it really? There is no standard like there is for bird friendly coffee and it turns out
[00:15:10] Dr. Alex Lees: Much of it, you know, ends up going to landfill or rotting in the garden or. It’s eaten by non-target species like,rats and mice and gray squirrels
[00:15:18] Griff Griffith: So there has to be a better way and thankfully there is.
[00:15:23] Mary Phillips: we actually advocate native plants being probably the best source of food for wildlife in their various stages of development
[00:15:32] Griff Griffith: That was Mary Phillips of the National Wildlife Federation from last week’s episode and we agree with her after talking with all these experts.
[00:15:39] What we like to say is plant your bird feeder.
[00:15:42] Dr. Emma Greig: I love that. I think that’s exactly right. Just plant it.
[00:15:46] Griff Griffith: Native plants are the set it and forget it solution.
[00:15:52] You’ll attract beneficial insects for all those insect eating birds. You’ll have natural seed and fruit sources for other birds. Birds, won’t congregate on one tiny piece of plastic and metal, so you’ll reduce disease spread. And you won’t have the upkeep and maintenance of cleaning your feeder or the unintended attraction of rodents.
[00:16:10] Now, if you’ve been feeding birds, the feeder, don’t feel bad. I love that you want to help birds and enjoy watching them and hearing them sing. I’m not gonna tell you to stop
[00:16:19] But I am asking you to really consider the responsibility you have taken on by adding resources, bird food, in this case, into our ecosystems.
[00:16:27] The most important thing I ask you to do is add native plants to provide some balance. Check out last week’s episode for more details.
[00:16:34] And clean your feeders, often
[00:16:37] Some experts. Recommend that you clean your feeders using a nine-part water to one part bleach solution, and use a brush to get in the nooks and crannies and crevices and corners.
[00:16:46] Have you heard that since 1970, we’ve lost 3 billion birds in North America? That sounds way depressing, but if you implement the changes that we’ve talked about in this episode, like planting your bird feeder, you can help our birds recover. There are lots of opportunities to bring back biodiversity, and many of them are fun to do.
[00:17:12] Speaking of biodiversity, there are many things that hinder it. For example, several wildlife species, including some birds, won’t bother to cross a busy road at all. And the reasons might surprise you.
[00:17:25] This cautious behavior may sound like a lifesaver in the short term But if those animals are unable to reach other populations of their own species, their isolation may result in their extinction tune in next week to find out why. And you can learn many other surprising effects of fragmented habitats.
[00:17:44] And please share your experiences with Bird Feeding and Native plants with us. We’d love to hear from you. You can email us at podcast at jumpstart nature. com or leave a comment on one of our social media pages. You can find us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and you can also follow our personal Tik Toks. Mine’s @griffwild.
[00:18:01] whether you have a feeder or a beautifully landscaped yard, porch, or balcony full of native plants you can participate in Project Feeder Watch. Go to feederwatch.org for details.
[00:18:12] The program runs from November through April in the United States and Canada.
[00:18:17] You want to learn more about Project Feeder Watch or hear more of our interview with Dr.
[00:18:21] Greig? be sure to check out Nature’s Archive for the full interview. Nature’s Archive is our sister podcast full of conversational interviews covering all things nature.
[00:18:31] To check out our show notes at jumpstartnature.com/podcast where we have links to all the resources mentioned transcripts of the episode, and links to additional resources to help you support birds, whether by providing feeders or native plants,
[00:18:45] Michael Hawk: And a big thanks to Dr. Alex Lees, Dr. Emily Greig, Dr. Doug Tallamy, Mary Phillips and Linda Stratman for their contributions to today’s episode
[00:18:54] The jumpstart nature podcast was created and produced by myself, Michael Hawk. Michelle Balderston is our associate producer And our host is Griff Griffith. Some of the music used in this production is done so with permission via creative commons licenses, this includes the following songs. From Sasha Ende Imagefilm 033 and Cinematic Suspense Series Episode 009 from Brian Holtz music. We have Lo-fi Prairie and Stranded.
[00:19:18] All of the songs are available from fimmusic.io. And full license information is in the show notes at jumpstartnature.com slash podcast.
[00:19:27] Thanks for listening.