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Open Mic: Bird Feeders for the Environment

At the Mic: Ernie Allison

Ernie Allison is a nature writer with a particular interest in birds. He is dedicated to using his writing skills to bring awareness to conservation issues concerning birds. To help further this mission, he writes for the hummingbird feeder provider,


AMGO feedersWhen I tell people about my bird feeding hobby, I get a lot of different responses. Some  people go off about how much they love nature too. Others ask, confused, “aren’t bird  feeders actually bad for the environment? Birds ate just fine before people fed them, right? Do they really need you?”

Of course, the short answer to this last question is no. Birds do not NEED people to put  feeders up for them. But that in no way means that bird feeders are bad for the  environment. In fact, if done correctly, your bird feeding hobby can definitely enhance the natural environment around you.

The reason that people think that bird feeders are bad for birds and the environment is  because of a select few practices that are, in fact, harmful. By feeding birds product with refined sugars and preservatives and failing to maintain feeders in a hygienic manner, yes, you can harm the birds. If the right practices are followed however, you can turn  your yard into a nature paradise that neither you nor the birds will want to leave.

The Feed

With the big Scotts Miracle-Gro lawsuit all over the news, a lot of people are wondering if their bird food is safe. As is made apparent by the Scotts case, it is difficult to know. But you can be intentional in your choices and make sure you are providing the healthiest food possible. Here  are some ways how:

  • Look at the ingredients in your birdseed
  • Research what the native birds in your area eat and provide only those items
  • Buy grains separately and in bulk and mix them yourself. This eliminates unnecessary ingredients, reduces the risk that pesticides and other harmful chemicals have been added, and can be cheaper in the long run.
  • Birds like variety, and different birds have different diets. By providing suet, syrups and nectars, native plants, and a variety of seeds, you can attract the most birds and provide them a well-balanced diet


The Landscape

Feeding the birds is not limited to the bird feeder industry. You can install native plants and landscape your yard in ways that attract birds. Nectar-producing flowers and berry-bearing bushes can attract all sorts of wonderful critters to your lawn. It also promotes a healthier environment.

Look into what plants are native to your area, and what species are attracted to them. If you plan right, you can ensure that you’ll have visitors year-round.

Birds are also attracted to an area based on what it looks like. Feeders should be semi-visible, but birds should also feel safe and unexposed when visiting them. This means that large trees and areas with lots of shrubbery may attract certain species more. If you have issues with hawks and other predators waiting around your feeders for their own snacks, then consider taking the feeder down for a week and moving it to a new  location.


Promoting Health

If your feeder frequently has a large number of visitors, it is important to make sure that it doesn’t become a breeding ground for disease. Here are some tips on proper feeder maintenance:

  • Clean your seed feeders at least once a week, removing any droppings and half-eaten food.
  • Rinse out your hummingbird feeder with hot water every time you refill it. Wash it completely every couple weeks.
  • Provide a bird bath with fresh running water. Be sure to clean it often, and if you leave it out for winter, be sure to provide a water heater. Birds won’t always be able to tell if water has frozen over and may get hurt.
  • If you see an increasing number of sick birds in your yard, take the feeders down for a week or two. Clean everything thoroughly before replacing it.


So why Bird Feeding?

Now that I’ve shared some tips for bird feeding, I want to talk about why you would take this up as a hobby in the first place. Personally, it is my connection with nature. I like to sit in my back yard and watch the feeders. Sometimes there are birds, sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes I can see evidence that there were visitors in my absence.

I also do see it as a contribution to nature. Though birds can certainly survive without us, there is no doubt that humans have messed with their natural habitat. Providing food is a small gesture of gratefulness and apology. It does make things easier on them, especially during migration season.

The “nature” contribution doesn’t just concern the birds though. Plants benefit from their presence, and insect life is positively affected as well. Attracting a variety of birds with a variety of plants promotes biodiversity. Since I started researching native plants, my yard has become much more pleasing to the eye. Even the plants that were already there are flourishing more thanks to my efforts.

And of course, there are the photo opportunities. While I am no nature photographer, I do enjoy the challenge of getting pictures of my avian friends. I now keep a camera near the back window, and am learning very well how to tell when a bird is about to fly off (usually my photos are  taken right after these signs are shown. I’ll get quicker eventually).

These are the reasons I love bird feeding, and do not subscribe to any theories that it’s bad for the birds. Of course, if I chose to be lazy with it and not make deliberate choices, it could be. But that’s how most of our hobbies are, isn’t it?

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

Latest posts by Nate Swick (see all)

  • I love that everything is connected to everything else and your blog is yet another example. Feeding birds leads to learning more about birds which leads to new hobbies, i.e. bird photography or traveling to view birds, and which morphs into gardening for the birds and butterflies which leads to…..

    And all of these activities lead to a longer, happier life for us humans.

  • Luisa

    Unhappy news for NorCal [Sonoma area] folks with feeders:

    Full disclosure: I have feeders around the yard here in SoCal, and a birdbath. I’ve counted my feeder birds for eBird and for Project FeederWatch — love keeping bird feeders around the place [and I do clean everything regularly]. No plans to take feeders down, unless birds start getting sickly. Stay healthy, you birds!

  • Tim in Albion

    Siskins are especially prone to Salmonellosis, which is often blamed on feeders. I wonder if there is evidence that feeders really do contribute to the spread or severity of the disease, or if they just make us more aware of it by increasing bird activity around our houses. If the little guys are dying out in the woods away from our yards, we’ll never know.

  • Linda

    I’ve gotten many bird feeders from Kinsman and I have been mixing my own feed for them just in case! I’ve gotten so many visitors, and I too feel like it’s my connection to nature. It’s very relaxing watching the birds in the morning while enjoying a cup of coffee.

  • bovander

    This article doesnt address any of the environmental concerns I have. Namely feeding birds increases the population of non migratory birds especially invasive species. The increased population create more competition for native migratory birds meaning less available habitat and nesting sites, less forage and many invasive species steal nests, destroy eggs, and cast out of the nest or even kill young birds People enjoy watching birds and feel connected to nature regardless of the impact. If you really want to benefit natives and migratory birds; plant foragable native habitat, dont put up bird feeders,and trap and kill starlings and other invasive species.

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