Nature Matters
Are We Killing Wild Birds With Kindness?

Are We Killing Wild Birds With Kindness?

Putting food out brings birds into our yards but does it also put them in harm’s way?

Inviting wild birds into our gardens seems like a great way to get closer to nature. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing cheerful chickadees or a brightly coloured woodpecker on a bird feeder? The North American bird feeding industry can certainly chirp over our enthusiasm for garden birdwatching. According to its 2016 annual report, almost 50% of Canadians have bought wild bird seed at least once, and regular purchasers spend an average of $30 a month on food for our feathered friends.

Yet, not everyone is convinced that bird feeding is a good idea. One concern is that it puts birds at greater risk of being caught by domestic cats. Even the most lovable kitty can’t resist the instinct to pounce on a careless songbird. The ecological impacts of cats killing birds are unclear. If you are an animal lover, though, that’s small consolation when you see a cat carrying in its jaws a bird that just ate from your table.

Another concern with bird feeders is that they spread diseases by bringing birds into close proximity with one another, especially if feeding areas have accumulated rotting food and bird droppings. Moreover, low-cost generic seed mixes encourage different types of birds to mingle, potentially allowing pathogens and parasites to jump species. One way to limit these risks is to have different feeders for different types of food. Industry data, however, suggest that it is bargain bird food mixtures that we are buying most often.

There is a major indirect danger associated with feeders that birds can come up against, too. According to a 2014 American study, over 900 million birds may be killed in the US every year by colliding with buildings. Furthermore, the researchers found that almost all such fatalities are caused by collisions with low-rises or residences. A 2012 study, meanwhile, found that birds hit homes with bird feeders more often than homes without them.

Does all of this mean that bird feeders do more harm than good? Currently we don’t have enough evidence to say one way or the other. Even so, attracting birds into our gardens does give us an uplifting way to observe natural beauty at a time when opportunities for that experience seem to be diminishing. If we take precautions, therefore, such as trying to keep cats at bay and cleaning bird feeders regularly, maybe we can keep feeding birds and our appreciation of nature in general.


How To Be Bird Safe

Install an ultrasonic cat deterrent

These devices go in the garden. When triggered by movement or body heat, they emit a high-pitched sound that humans can’t hear but cats find unpleasant. Canadian retailers include Vancouver-based Aspectek (www.aspectek.com), which produces the Aspectek Yard Sentinel (left).

Keep bird feeders clean

Take feeders down and wash them with an animal-safe disinfectant or a weak water-and-bleach solution at least a couple of times a year. Remember to also rinse and dry them thoroughly before filing them up again.

Reduce window collisions

Installing bird-safe screens, films or netting can make glass more visible to birds. Other precautions include keeping blinds closed and houseplants away from windows. The Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) Canada has more advice on its website at www.flap.org.

NOTE: this article was originally published in 2018.

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