Many people will probably read this and disagree or criticise me harshly, but garden bird feeders are not the favour to the environment that many people have been led to believe. Many people simply enjoy feeding the birds, and I am not judging them for their kindness. However, I was a biologist; specifically a botanist and ecologist. I studied habitat workings and population dynamics. And I tell you now that nature is not kind. It cannot be, because it is not a rational, thinking, feeling entity. Nature simply is, and whatever exists in it either survives or doesn’t.
Let me explain. Any habitat, whether an untouched old-growth forest, a desert, a swamp, or a backyard (or rather, a neighbourhood of backyards), represents and provides a certain amount of resources to the things that live in it. Many times, those living things are themselves resources. For plants, the major resources are light, water, soil nutrients, space, and sometimes pollinators. For animals, the major resources are shelter/habitat, food, water, and, eventually, mates. (We can usually assume that air is not an issue as a resource.)
Resources are, or can be, limited, and so the living things in a habitat are to some degree in competition for available resources. This in turn creates more limits on what can survive or thrive. Given time to sort itself out, the local ecosystem will eventually settle into a dynamic pattern that is more or less stable over the long run.
What does this have to do with bird feeders? Well, by providing this source of food, you are creating an artificial, and artificially high, spike in the local resources. The birds that eat from feeders become better fed and consequently stronger and healthier, and can outcompete other types of birds for territory, nesting space, and food for their chicks. Over a long time, this eventually creates a shift in the local species that favours birds that will eat from feeders vs. those that don’t. Local biodiversity therefore falls. And since a block of backyards is not exactly a natural environment to begin with, things that would normally control such a population rise, such as predators, may not be present.
However, this is exactly what is expected to happen under the circumstances. As I said earlier, in time the local ecology shifts to reflect the resources present.
Perhaps in very large gardens it wouldn’t make much of a difference overall, but most of us don’t have very large gardens.
So what happens if and when you stop feeding the birds? Perhaps you move out, or even just go on a vacation. Suddenly the food source that the unnaturally high population of birds relied upon, is gone. Some will outright starve. Some will leave for greener pastures. Some will survive, but be weakened and more susceptible to diseases and parasites. This time the populations of those bird species fall, and in the long run you have not done them a favour. This is exactly what happens when any population outstrips its resources.
Unfortunately, the potential consequences can affect far more than the birds themselves.
Most of the seeds sold for bird feeders are not native to the area in which they are used. The feeders therefore train the birds to prefer a foreign food source. With access to free, easy meals, the birds spend less time hunting for local seeds. You might therefore notice an increase in weeds.
Squirrels are notorious thieves and scavengers from bird feeders. You might be feeding them too. And frankly, as a gardener I love birds and hate squirrels. Remember also that squirrels often carry their loot elsewhere. They thus spread the seeds around your garden or other parts of the neighbourhood, and then these foreign seed species can germinate and become invasive weeds.
Even something as innocent as a piece of bread can become a health hazard if a bird or squirrel hauls it to someone else’s backyard. There it can become mushy and mouldy, just in time for a pet or small child to find it – and possibly eat it.
Now let’s look at the feed itself. Remember that bird feeder seeds and feed mixes are crops – commercially created and commercially raised crops.
How was that crop produced? Did some virgin habitat get razed for farmland? Was the crop raised in a sustainable manner, or was it doused with fertilisers and pesticides? If so, remember that you are feeding those pesticides to the birds as well. Where was this crop raised, and what are the gas miles and carbon footprint involved in getting the bird feed from the farm to your backyard? Are the farm workers fairly treated and fairly paid?
(These are all questions you could be asking about your own food, by the way.)
So despite the fact that I genuinely like birds and love seeing and hearing them in my garden, I do not use birdfeeders. If you want to do the birds a favour, another way is to create habitat for them.
Some birds like dense cover while others prefer open areas. Some feed on plants, some feed on invertebrates, and some feed on both, but even the seed-eaters hunt for insects to feed their chicks (they need the high protein to grow quickly). Therefore a garden with few insects attracts few birds. And all birds need safe nesting spaces and clean water. What habitat you can provide will be a gauge of which birds you attract; no ecosystem will sustain all the birds in the guidebooks.
Plant native species of wildflowers, trees, and shrubs, especially ones that produce seeds and berries that the birds can feed on. These are self-renewing resources of a sort that could have been locally present before we plunked houses in the area. Plants that produce seeds and berries in late summer and autumn are especially important to birds that overwinter locally. This may seem obvious, but to allow such plants to create seeds and berries, you must not deadhead the flowers.
Research is important, and so is observation. Make a note of which birds you see in your area, and decide which ones you would like to encourage. Believe it or not, there may be some you don’t want to encourage – the European starling, for example, is a pest here in North America, both ecologically and commercially. Find out what sort of habitat, food, and nesting situations those birds like. Then you can go about working your choice into your garden.
If you have no particular goal in mind, or simply not a lot of space, then just make a garden that is not highly primped and fussed over, and especially one with no insecticides in use. The birds will come.
Clean water is especially vital to attract and keep birds. Providing a birdbath goes a long way toward this goal, and does so in a way that doesn’t significantly alter the environment. After all, most gardens must have water from time to time, and I’ve seen birds drinking out of the saucers that catch water draining from flowerpots. Remember that birds need water – liquid water – in winter as well, although this can be a challenge to provide consistently.
This is not intended as an attack on birdfeeders or people who use them. I’m saying there are alternatives, ones that could be better in the long term – for everyone. As a case in point, I’ve counted no fewer than fifteen species of birds in my little garden. Not just flying through, but actually here and going about their business. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more that I haven’t noticed or recognised.