For decades, I have faithfully washed out my bird feeders in October, bought large bags of sunflower seed and filled the feeders for the next six months or so. As I get ready to make that transition now, I learned that it might be detrimental to bird populations to feed them in winter!
A recent study done in the UK by researchers at the University of Exeter and the British Trust for Ornithology found that feeding woodland blue tits in winter produced smaller chicks that did not survive as long as birds not fed supplemental food. Another study says that supplemental feeding during breeding season (March-July) produces fewer eggs, a lower percentage of which hatch.
Neither of these studies is conclusive. There are many unanswered questions why this happens. Most of the time, feeders offer an immediate benefit for the birds. Those that are weak or ill can survive the winter with the food offered around our homes. Statistics say 40% of American households and 50% of British households have at least one feeder, usually more, along with a variety of foods and accessories, such as birdbaths. Bird feeding and watching are popular hobbies and a huge industry!
So should you feed or not? This year, I think I will change my decades old ritual until the hardest part of the winter. December is cold, dark and snowy, and much of the native landscape is covered into February.
My yard is planted with all native plants, so there is plenty of food. They pick at the seedheads of spent flowers all winter. When snow falls and ground-feeders, such as juncos, cannot access anything to eat, I scatter seed on the ground. This year, I will wait until then to fill the feeders, too.
Maybe by letting the birds fend for themselves more and just helping them out when food is scarce or buried, populations will rise. They are wild animals and know where to find what they need. A native landscape will attract native songbirds for birdwatchers to enjoy.
If You Use Bird Feeders
When it’s bitter cold, birds need more fat and calories to stay warm, too. Black oil sunflowers, peanuts and suet can provide what they need. I have used all three of these easily and with success. Remember to also provide water and shelter. Pine trees, nesting pockets, vines and brush piles make lovely homes! A heated birdbath will guarantee them a place to drink and bathe all winter.
Enjoy your hobby! I have a bird book that is over 30 years old. As I’ve traveled around the country, I’ve marked where I have seen certain birds in the wild. And here at home, I have fun attracting them with plants and supplemental food. We can help them out a bit by feeding them, but not to the detriment of their population.