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Like many people, we have bird feeders, and a bird-bath. We also have a feeding station (replenished in the mornings only) that attracts squirrels and chipmunks and some of the larger birds. During the winter, we are religious about keeping the bird feeders full, and during the few heavy snows we have in our area, we shovel a patch on our patio and put out extra seed.

We are selective about what we feed. We don't put out food for raccoons or foxes or deer, all of which we have in fair abundance. Still, we're feeding wildlife in our yard, which in National Parks we're sternly enjoined not to do.

Is there an ecological justification for feeding birds, beyond our own selfish pleasure in watching a patch of our yard alive with beautiful creatures?

Please specify the geographical area of your answer. The answer(s) may differ depending on the ecosystem.

  • Thanks, @Sue. Let's see who alights on this question now. – ab2 Jul 17 '17 at 23:27
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If we exclude the birdwatching explanation Shem gives, the only possible ecological reason for a bird feeder is to counteract the negative effect we have on the bird's habitat by having our house there.

This doesn't explain why we only tend to feed "cute" animals - if we are to be honest about ecological support, we should analyse impact data on all the species we have negatively impacted in our locale and feed them all no matter if they are cute birds, hedgehogs etc or spiders, insects and slugs... And very few people will do that, sadly!

In reality, all life impacts other life. Human occupation has negative impact on some species and positive on others. We cannot really justify bird feeding from an ecological standpoint.

Personally, I have nesting boxes for finches and tits in the big trees at the bottom of my garden, bee-friendly plants and insect "hotels" in my garden, but I also have a cat that actively hunts, I dissuade the foxes and deer from coming too close and I dispose of snails and slugs - so even though I am ecologically aware, I'm as biased towards animals I like as the next person.

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    Really agree with the positive / negative affects. We have a lot of plants in our garden that have massive and very much in the way and annoying flowers - the pollen is orange and if it gets on clothing it stains - but we leave them up until they die as the bees (all species we get locally) love it. Nature is unfortunately at home give and take. We also have trees that have berries seasonally, and the birds prefer this to our and next doors feeders! :) – Aravona Jul 18 '17 at 10:02
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    Back in the winter of 2010-2011, we did put out seeds and fat as the local bird community was quite badly impacted by the unusual weather, but we don't do that generally as a rule. – Rory Alsop Jul 18 '17 at 10:56
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The answers to this question may differ based on location, but I can tell you that in my part of the world there is legislation in place for controlling populations of certain birds (as well as other pesky critters).

Bird feeders are for bird watchers who want to attract birds into their yards. I'm the other type of people. I have raspberries, saskatoons, cherries, and apples growing in my yard, so I want the birds to stay away. I have bird nets protecting my trees and bushes, owl decoys to scare the birds away (as do many of my neighbours), and a list of all the birds considered "nuisance birds" under Alberta legislation that anyone can legally dispose off using good husbandry.

There is no ecological justification for feeding birds, they don't need the food, the vast majority of the birds eating from your feeders aren't threatened species. Odds are many of the birds you're feeding are in the same boat as sparrows, starlings, magpies and rock doves are in Alberta; they're considered nuisance birds, and do damage to the crops meant for people. Providing them with food only increases their numbers, and gives added cause for agriculturalist to cull them in order to control their numbers.

If you enjoy having the birds in your yard, that's fine. But you're not helping them. In fact. you're doing the opposite. Some of the birds you so generously feed likely become dependant on the food you provide them to the point where they would struggle if you were to stop.

Bird feeders are for bird watchers. They aren't for the birds, they're for the people who fill the feeders and like to watch the birds. There's nothing wrong with feeding the birds, just keep in mind that there are also lots of places where there's nothing wrong with killing them just to reduce their numbers (or teaching them a lesson for ruining all my cherries).

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    @Roflo I think bird baths should be separate question. You can post it and link this question as reference. – James Jenkins Jul 16 '17 at 9:50
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    Do you happen to have a source for the claim about dependency in the 4th paragraph? And would this be true for just any kind, or rather specific species? Likewise for the killing to reduce numbers: isn't it also possible that for some species this only has a temporary effect, i.e. kill a bunch = more place for newcomers = in the end the same number, unless killing happens periodically? – stijn Jul 16 '17 at 13:04
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    I think your answer is very subjective, though it may be true in your area. It depends entirely on what the surrounding habitat is and whether or not there are threatened species in the area, or could be. Depending on these things, the answer could range from feeding being helpful, harmful or having no effect at all. To make the absolute claims that you do its flawed. – Niall Jul 16 '17 at 19:07
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    Sorry but I agree with Niall. This needs substantiation to back up your absolute claims. @stijn also rightfully asked for sources, especially for the assertions in the 4th paragraph. It only takes a few minutes to find studies by ornithologists to refute much of what you said. Opinion is fine in some cases, but I believe this question is seeking an answer based on science. OP can correct me if I'm wrong. – Sue Jul 16 '17 at 20:30
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    @Sue and anybody: I would welcome an edit to the title or body of the question to improve it. Perhaps I am asking two questions: (1) What is the ecological justification (if any) and (2) What techniques can I use to maximize (or create) a positive impact? – ab2 Jul 16 '17 at 21:20

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