Weighing the Scales: Should You Feed Backyard Birds?

Backyard birds feeding can brighten any day. However, the seemingly simple act of offering them food raises a complex question: are we doing them more good than harm? This note delves into the ethical considerations of feeding backyard birds, examining the arguments for and against the practice, and ultimately advocating for a responsible approach that prioritizes the birds’ well-being.

American Goldfinch is one of America’s favorite backyard bird. Photo: Brad McDonald.

Arguments in Favor of Feeding

  • Supplemental feeding: Bird populations face various challenges like habitat loss and food scarcity, especially during harsh winters or breeding seasons. Providing supplemental food sources can help them survive and thrive, boosting their reproductive success.
  • Education and connection: Bird feeders attract a diverse range of species, offering valuable opportunities for observation and learning. This fosters a connection with nature, promoting environmental awareness and appreciation for birds’ beauty and ecological roles.
  • Community building: Bird feeders can become focal points for community engagement, fostering connection between neighbors and families who share an interest in birds. This can lead to collaborative conservation efforts and a stronger sense of community.
  • Positive research: Studies have shown that feeding birds can provide valuable data on their migration patterns, population dynamics, and responses to environmental changes. This information is crucial for bird conservation efforts.

Arguments Against Feeding

  • Disease transmission: Unhygienic feeders or crowded feeding areas can facilitate the spread of diseases like avian pox, salmonellosis, and trichomoniasis. This can have severe consequences for individual birds and even entire populations.
  • Habitat dependence: Over reliance on feeders can discourage birds from seeking natural food sources, potentially impacting their foraging skills and long-term survival in the wild.
  • Competition and aggression: Feeders can attract dominant species, displacing weaker ones and creating an imbalanced ecosystem within the backyard. This can also lead to increased aggression and territorial behavior among birds.
  • Artificial selection: Providing an abundance of unnatural food sources like sugary seeds might favor certain species with adaptations for eating them, potentially affecting the natural balance of the bird community.

Taking a Responsible Approach

While concerns about potential harm are valid, they shouldn’t deter us from the joy and benefits of feeding birds. The key lies in practicing responsible bird feeding habits and adopting a habitat-focused approach:

  • Maintain hygiene: Regularly clean and disinfect feeders to prevent disease transmission.
  • Offer a diverse food source: Supplement seeds with fruits, nuts, and suet to provide a balanced diet.
  • Create a natural habitat: Plant native vegetation to attract insects and natural food sources, reducing reliance on feeders.
  • Monitor bird behavior: Watch for signs of illness or aggression and adjust feeding practices accordingly.
  • Support conservation efforts: Advocate for habitat protection and natural resource conservation initiatives.

By taking these steps, we can ensure that feeding backyard birds is a positive experience for both humans and birds. We can learn about these fascinating creatures, enjoy their presence, and contribute to their well-being and the health of our local ecosystems.

Ultimately, the ethical decision lies in prioritizing the birds’ welfare. By adopting responsible practices and fostering a natural habitat, we can transform bird feeding from a simple act of entertainment into a meaningful contribution to bird conservation and a celebration of our connection with nature.

So, let’s open our hearts and bird feeders to our feathered neighbors, but do so with responsibility and respect, ensuring their well-being and the harmony of our shared environment.

Hummingbird Lifeline: How Feeder Fuel Powers Migration Success

Ruby-throated hummingbirds congregate at feeders along their migration route.

Nectar feeding during migration plays a crucial role in hummingbird survival. Hummingbirds undergo pre-migration hyperphagia, meaning they eat and drink intensely to pack on fat reserves. This fat acts as fuel for their long and often non-stop migrations. 

Some species can fly thousands of miles over land and open water, needing enough energy to sustain them for days. 

Studies show that hummingbirds can double their weight during this period, with nectar being a primary source of their high-energy, sugar-rich diet.

Strategic Pit Stops: While hummingbirds can glean some energy from insects during migration, nectar remains their main source of calories. They rely on finding reliable food sources along their flight routes, often visiting blooming wildflowers, trees, and hummingbird feeders. These pit stops replenish their energy reserves, allowing them to continue their journey.

Timing is Key: The availability of nectar is vital for successful migration. Hummingbirds have evolved to migrate in sync with blooming periods in different regions. 

For example, some species time their arrival in Central America with the peak flowering of certain tropical plants. Delays in migration due to food shortage can have life-or-death consequences, as they may arrive at their destination when food resources are dwindling.

Additional Benefits: The sugars in nectar provide not just energy, but also essential nutrients. Additionally, the water content is crucial for hydration, especially during long flights. Some plants offer nectar rich in specific amino acids, which hummingbirds utilize for muscle repair and regeneration during migration.

Therefore, nectar feeding during migration indeed provides a life line to hummingbirds during migration. It is vital for their ability to successfully complete their migratory journeys and ultimately ensures their reproductive success and population persistence.

However, it’s important to remember:

  • Native flowering plants are always the preferred source of nectar for hummingbirds. Human-made nectar should be seen as a supplement, not a replacement.
  • Maintaining clean and safe feeders with the right sugar-water ratio is crucial to avoid any harm to the birds.
  • Climate change and habitat loss can disrupt natural flowering patterns, making nectar even more critical for migrating hummingbirds. 

In conclusion, the importance of nectar feeding during hummingbird migration cannot be overstated. It is a critical factor in their survival.

Additional Resources about feeding backyard birds. These resources offer diverse perspectives and scientific evidence to help you form your own informed opinion about feeding backyard birds. 


Providing supplemental food during the winter can help birds survive and thrive, boosting their reproductive success in the Spring. Photo: Susy Morris.
  • The Backyard Bird Feeders Guide to Attracting and Feeding Birds: A comprehensive guide by Michael and Laura Jean Keane covering feeder types, bird species, food sources, disease prevention, and habitat creation.
  • Feeding Wild Birds: A Practical Guide to Helping Our Feathered Friends: David Sibley offers practical advice on feeder selection, food choices, hygiene, and attracting diverse bird species while minimizing potential risks.
  • Birdfeeder Ethics: The Essential Guide to Feeding Birds: This book by Geoffrey Allen tackles the ethical debate surrounding bird feeding, exploring potential benefits and drawbacks in detail.

Websites and Articles:

  • Cornell Lab of Ornithology Bird Feeding Resources: A wealth of information on bird feeder hygiene, disease prevention, creating a bird-friendly habitat, and attracting specific species.
  • American Bird Conservancy: Bird Feeding: This website provides insights on the benefits and drawbacks of bird feeding, with tips for responsible practices.
  • The National Wildlife Federation: Backyard Birds: This resource offers guidance on attracting and feeding birds while protecting their health and the environment.

Research Articles:

  • “The Potential for Disease Transmission at Bird Feeders” by David E. Stallknecht: This article explores the risks of disease transmission at feeders and suggests ways to minimize them.
  • “The Effects of Artificial Feeding on Avian Nestling Growth and Fledging Success” by Andrew B. Young: This research examines the potential impacts of feeder dependence on bird reproductive success.
  • “The Impact of Supplemental Feeding on Avian Abundance and Diversity: A Meta-Analysis” by Thomas W. Sherry and John D. Holmes: This study analyzes the overall effects of bird feeding on bird populations and species diversity.


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