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A photo of finches at a bird feeder in the winter.

Finches gather around a bird feeder on a snowy day. There are an estimated 45 million backyard birders in the United States.

Photograph by Wayne Gammon, National Geographic Your Shot

Martha Hamilton

National Geographic

Published July 11, 2014

Stanley A. Temple couldn't believe his good luck.

It was back in the 1980s, when warnings abounded about the dangers of feeding birds in the winter. Some feared that the practice could turn noble, wild animals into needy, dependent beggars, unwilling to forage and possibly starving to death or becoming vulnerable to disease.

Many people had asked Temple, an avian ecologist, whether it was true. But no studies had been conducted. When he and a colleague at the University of Wisconsin decided to test the thesis, "it was one of those, 'Oh, you're kidding me' moments," said Temple, now an emeritus professor of wildlife at the school.

And the answer? Nope. Not true.

In the winter of 1984-85, Temple and his colleague Margaret C. Brittingham removed a bird feeder from the nature center at Devil's Lake State Park that had been stocked every winter for the previous 25 years. They banded 49 feeder habitué black-capped chickadees and then, in a remote, permanently feeder-less region, banded 35 more.

The results, Temple wrote, "provided no evidence for harmful effects of forcing the Devil's Lake 'feeder addicts' to go 'cold turkey.'" Survival rates were essentially the same.

Temple and Brittingham also found that on average, the chickadees obtained only 20 to 25 percent of their calories from feeders. As one food supply runs out in the winter—whether it's insects left from the previous summer or seeds of fading summer flowers—birds move on to another food source.

You seldom hear those old welfare concerns anymore, and many backyard birders now happily feed birds in both winter and summer. At the same time, a growing number of "citizen science" projects that help track birds and their range have focused on birds in urban and suburban habitats, which are rapidly replacing the wilder areas where the birds once ranged.

Seeding a Movement

In the birding world today—with ornithologists now relying on the sidewalk-lined landscape and backyard birders for data—it feels good, even noble, to feed birds in the backyard.

Every ten years, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the U.S. loses 21 million acres to residential landscapes—an area the size of Maryland and West Virginia combined. The good news is that those converted acres are inhabited by a growing number of bird watchers and feeders. In 2006, according to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife Associated Recreation, there were 42 million backyard birders. In 2011, there were about 45 million.

And they're willing to shell out for birdseed.

Although you can buy a 20-pound wild bird blend for under $7 at some big box stores, fancier blends in the same size can run as high as nearly $50.

"It's plenty expensive," said Temple, noting that bird feeding dropped during the recession.

"We had a really big spike about two-and-a-half years ago, and it's settled in since then," said Jim Carpenter, founder and chief executive of Wild Birds Unlimited, who is also on the boards of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute.

Some of the cheaper blends, he adds, have less of the seeds that birds actually eat.

Tracking Trends

Wild Birds Unlimited is a franchise with 270 locations, and Carpenter keeps a close eye on trends. One is the expansion of bird feeding into summer.

When Carpenter opened his first store, in 1981, the concern about winter feeding was a hot topic. Nowadays he still occasionally hears it, despite the studies to the contrary.

"We don't promote that you have to feed them for survival," he says. "You feed them to get to see them." Summer "is the coolest time of the year to watch woodpeckers. And this time of the year, little fledglings come out of the nest. And everyone was missing that because they would stop [after the winter]."

Another trend is that consumers are looking for feed blends that leave less mess—seed shells and seed that falls as the birds forage in the feeder.

And then there's the issue of diversity.

Environmental groups have begun trying to change the demographics of birding. A 2011 census by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that 91 percent of those who watched wildlife (mostly birds) around their homes were white.

"It's a problem," said Karen Ann Purcell, who works in the Citizen Science department at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "We've been doing citizen science for a long time, and one of the things that we noticed from the very beginning is that participants tended to be very well educated and fairly affluent and white—and we wanted to change that. If we're not hearing the voices of all types of people in science, science is going to be in trouble. We have to reflect the world we live in."

Working with the National Science Foundation, Cornell came up with several projects to broaden the base. One was Celebrate Urban Birds, which so far has partnered with more than 9,000 community organizations to reach places where the overwhelming majority of participants had no previous experience with birds. It emphasizes 16 species that are common in urban and suburban environments, and encourages participants to find as many as possible in a ten-minute period.

It also looks for ways to improve green spaces in neighborhoods. A program called Funky Nests demonstrates how thoroughly birds have made urban spaces their own, nesting on stoplights and statues and in the nooks and crevices of buildings.

"People living in these communities didn't think birds nested there," said Purcell, Celebrate Urban Birds's project leader. "They thought they nested in the forest."

Nature Takes Its Course, of Course

As to how the myth of bird welfare dependency arose during the Reagan era, nobody really knows. But Temple speculates that, rather than reflecting a political view, it was "people's egos thinking that what they are doing for birds in putting out food is so important that, if they stop, the birds will perish."

But they don't, he said.

Or, as Carpenter put it, "When a berry bush has berries and they eat them all, they don't wait for next year's crop."

15 comments
Angela Cancilla Herschel
Angela Cancilla Herschel

I wish this mentioned that they need to be kept clean and disinfected as they can spread  disease  easily that can be  passed between birds.

Wanda Pike
Wanda Pike

We love feeding birds year round , it's very cold in the winter Lots our friends fly south ,and it's so nice to see them back ,April ,May only same stay It does not cost that much , but the joy we have watching them specify when it's -30 c and big woodpecker it's enjoying his meal

J  R  FRANCIS Jr.
J R FRANCIS Jr.

Feeding feathered   friends    is    not    that  popular   in   this  part   of    India. (Kerala) Also      I   am   unaware   of    such   a   thing  in  other   parts  of   the   country.  I   am    sure   it   is   not   pastime,  anyway.  I  tried  a  few  times   with    some    cereal   ..very   seriously.  It    did  not  work    .No   (feathered)  friend   came   close.   Where    to   seek    help  ?


Cynthia B.
Cynthia B.

I buy 50# bags of black oil sunflower seeds and they all love it, from my red bellied woodpeckers down to my wee goldfinches. I will add a couple suet feeders in the winter,  mostly for the woodpeckers, but otherwise I don't make myself crazy with multiple kinds of seed or overpriced designer seeds.

As a plus, my dogs are experts now at keeping the squirrels off the feeder s. That is their job & they relish it haha.


@ Rebecca...hawks gotta eat, too. I feel blessed when I see the big raptors here. Reminds me what a lovely, natural area I live in.


If the squirrels become particularly pesky, as they do some days, I will take the feeders down. I do it a lot at night now because they have learned to sneak in before I am awake. LOL, there are always a handful of birds watching & waiting for the diner to reopen! More than that, I am sure, in the trees & shrubs.

Rebecca Clark
Rebecca Clark

I am Black and I love watching birds.  We put up a feeder the week we bought our house in 1997 and still use it.  We don't keep it filled constantly, so our experience is that the birds feed from it when there's something there, but still feed from the ground or wherever they always do.  I believe that even if we keep the feeder full all the time, the birds will still feed from nature because they know what they need.  It is so nice to watch what time and where the different birds choose to feed and play in the yard throughout the day.  It is nice to watch the fat baby birds follow Mom for food.  It's interesting when the yard is completely quiet either right before rain.  I can also tell when the hawk has returned because the yard will be so quiet - the birds aren't out foraging and playing.  I hate that hawk! Anyway, we do need continuous information so that we don't misfeed our birds.

Jordan Chaney
Jordan Chaney

Something that is rarely mentioned are the diseases that birds can share from backyard bird feeders (avian pox, toxoplasmosis, etc.) and yes, some diseases are even zoonotic. I'm not saying to not sit out feeders, but they should at least be disinfected on occasion.

zou xiu
zou xiu

protect environmennt,everyone have the duty.

Vonne Pitcher
Vonne Pitcher

As we have destroyed so much of the natural environment and food sources that birds utilise. they deserve a helping hand in hard times.

LM Bowland
LM Bowland

Help support and protect our endangered, feathered dinosaurs. They've survived for hundreds of millions of years and the environment needs them to continue surviving. Our planet needs all the help it can get, every way it can get it. Look into a bird's eyes and you look back in Time.

T. McGrath
T. McGrath

Anyone who feeds the wildlife, including birds, should be severely fined.  They are causing far more harm than they realize.


Dianne Holcombe
Dianne Holcombe

I have been feeding my neighbors for about 10 years. I worried when I couldn't afford seed, but they always seemed to return when their feeders were full. I finally decided that they must be finding food elsewhere when my larder was empty. Glad that is true!

Bellz Webster
Bellz Webster

@J R FRANCIS Jr. Bird seed is best to leave out JR. Cereal may not be a likeable food for birds. Its nice that you have tried.

Steve Holzman
Steve Holzman

@T. McGrath  and this is based on......is there a study you want us to look at or should we just believe you?

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