Is feeding birds in the winter good or bad for the birds?

Answered by Dr. Chuck Trost, Emeritus Professor, Idaho State University

As long as the feeders are clean, the food gives birds the energy to survive during a stressful period.  Personally I fed birds because I like to watch them.  I’ll have to admit that it does concentrate them, and predators such as cats and hawks can prey on them.  But all in all, bird feeding provides an educational opportunity for the person feeding, as well as their children.

Bird-Feeding Concerns (from Cornell Lab of Ornithology)

Poorly maintained feeders may contribute to the spread of infectious diseases among birds. The feeders themselves can sometimes pose hazards too. Here are some helpful hints for successful bird feeding:

  • Avoid overcrowding at feeders by placing numerous  feeders several feet apart.
  • Keep your feeding area and feeders clean.
  • Keep food and food-storage containers dry and free of mold and fungus.
  • Check your feeders for sharp edges that can scratch birds and make them susceptible to infection.

People wonder whether bird feeding causes birds to change their migratory behavior. The clue that most birds use to migrate is the change in day length rather than the availability of food. Also, peak migration time is late summer and fall, a time when natural foods are readily available anyway. So, it is unlikely that feeding birds has any effect on their migratory patterns.

Many people also worry about what will happen to their backyard visitors when they go on vacation. Ideally, a neighbor or friend should stop by to restock your feeder. Otherwise, try to taper off gradually before you go. Don’t fret, however; it’s fine to stop feeding briefly. In winter, natural food sources often disappear overnight when they are covered by snow or consumed by other animals. Birds have adapted accordingly—studies show that even birds with full access to feeders consume three quarters of their diet elsewhere, and that when feeder birds are deprived of supplemental foods, they quickly revert to an all-natural diet. If your neighbors have feeders too, you can rest even more assured that your birds will not starve.

Domestic cats can be a problem for feeder birds.  Cats learn that feeder birds make easy, regular prey.  Certain raptors like hawks and owls may also prey on feeder birds. Put bird feeders near a tree or bush. Birds will be able to eat and then quickly fly to a branch in the cover to evade predators.

When are birds most active at the feeder?

You won’t always see birds at the bird feeder. Sometimes it is quiet and empty, other times it will be a feeding frenzy. You might also notice that certain species of birds visit at different times.

  1. Throughout a week, observe the feeder in 15-minute increments during different times of day. Take note of what types of bird come to the feeder and how many of each type.
  2. Graph the results and then analyze what was found. What are the most common feeding times? Which species are morning feeders? Which are afternoon feeders? Which species are evening feeders?

In general, most garden birds show three peaks to their levels of feeding activity during a typical winter’s day. The first of these occurs during the early morning and is thought to be an attempt by individual birds, emerging from their roosts, to top up energy reserves lost the previous night.

A later peak, occurring towards the end of the day, probably has a similar cause, with birds taking on extra reserves to help get them through the night ahead.

There is a third peak, smaller in size, which occurs during the middle of the day. This peak may be a consequence of competition between individuals for access to limited food reserves. The smaller, subordinate species and juveniles may be forced to visit feeders at a time which is not ideal because more dominant species exclude them from the feeders at the better times of day.

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