This item is written for a different context and culture, but has a bit
of food for thought.
November 30, 2001
Inviting Birds for Dinner (But Not to Be Eaten)
By JAMES GORMAN
We were late setting up our bird feeders this season. I put them out
only a few days ago. So far, our only visitors have been juncos and a
chickadee. As the winter comes, and the birds find the seed or remember
that we're a soft touch, I expect the usual crowd: two pairs of
cardinals, nuthatches (which I love to watch come down a tree trunk
upside down), finches, jays, titmice, sparrows, the odd woodpecker, some
pigeons, doves, starlings and, of course, the squirrels.
I think of our family as middlebrow bird feeders. We're not lowbrow.
We've moved beyond supermarket seed mixes. We have a feeder just for
thistle seed. We've had a special ground feeder (now wrecked by
squirrels and weather and in need of replacement) and a hanging metal
feeder that has a counterweighted perch for the birds. When a squirrel
lands, the extra weight causes the perch to drop, bringing down a cover
that blocks the seed tray.
Nevertheless, I still buy commercial mixtures. I don't buy the seed in
bulk. I know that there's one kind of sunflower seed that's better than
another, but I always have to ask the person at the garden shop which
one it is. I'm hit and miss with the suet, and I haven't spent much time
considering the myriad issues ? technical, ethical and ecological ? in
feeding birds. And I haven't reached the level of the truly highbrow,
hard-core bird lovers who have moved beyond feeders to fill their yard
with plants that birds love, turning their whole yard into a
I should point out at the start, to avoid dashed expectations, that I'm
not going to talk about defeating squirrels. I believe that this is an
impossibility. And a discussion of why people think that birds deserve
our attention and support, and squirrels don't, could fill volumes. I am
more or less squirrel-tolerant. I have feeders that discourage them and
I spread seed around on the ground to distract them.
Squirrels aside, bird feeding is complicated. In a small way, multiplied
many times, people who feed birds step into the natural order and, at
the very least, give it a nudge. Of course, if you're setting up a bird
feeder, you already live in an area where the natural world has been
turned upside down. But the point of bird feeders seems to be to help
birds. We want to be setting things right in a small way. Part of it is
for our amusement, but there's always a feeling of virtue in feeding
other creatures. So the biggest question is: who benefits the most, the
birds or the people feeding them?
I called Stephen W. Kress, the author of several books on feeding birds
and birding and the National Audubon Society's vice president for bird
conservation, to ask him whether bird feeders really help birds. "The
benefits to the people may outweigh the benefits to the birds," Mr.
He pointed out that birds are very well adapted to surviving the winter,
that only a small percentage eat seed and suet, and that birds have done
well for many thousands of years without feeders.
Still, that was before suburban sprawl, and he said that certainly,
individual birds benefited from the feeders. And for the birds that like
the seeds we put out, extra food is always a help in extreme
temperatures and heavy snow. With feeders, "we're probably tilting
things a bit in their favor," he said.
That said, you have to consider the unintended consequences, of which
squirrels are an obvious example. Feeders may also favor birds like jays
and grackles, Mr. Kress said. They are big and aggressive, will eat
anything and may prey on the young of other birds in the spring. The
feeders may also be attractive to cowbirds, which lay their eggs in
other birds' nests, thus avoiding the struggle and strife of rearing
their own young, but still managing to spread their genes.
This is where biology and human morality, or perhaps sentimentality,
meet in a tangled web. Parasitism and thievery are greatly honored by
natural selection, as much as observers may find those behaviors
unpalatable. In our family we have a divided opinion on jays. I like
them; my wife doesn't. They're smart and quick, with an eye for the main
chance. And I don't see why they shouldn't benefit as well as the
goldfinches. I think of them and other disreputable creatures as animal
versions of Alfred P. Doolittle, the father of Eliza Doolittle in
"Pygmalion" (and, of course, "My Fair Lady").
When he is trying to cadge money from Professor Henry Higgins,
essentially to sell the rights to his daughter, he speaks of the plight
of the undeserving poor, a group in which he claims membership. He
points out that charity always goes to the deserving poor, not to him
and others like him. But, he says: "I don't need less than a deserving
man: I need more. I don't eat less hearty than him; and I drink a lot
No doubt something similar is true for undeserving birds, like jays,
gulls and crows. I think our family does our part for all those birds.
Sometimes our garbage bags overflow the cans. Or an overzealous dog
knocks them over and tears into them. This is a great benefit to
sharp-eyed crows, as a neighbor pointed out a few winters ago, when I
had just finished filling the feeders with seed. He asked me if I was
going to work on the "crow feeder" next.
Mr. Kress said, however, that the issue is not preference for one
species over another, but an attempt to make sure that human actions are
not putting certain species at risk. There is some concern, he said,
that favoring resident, opportunistic species like jays or gulls can be
bad for migratory birds that don't use feeders and may suffer predation.
A warbler, for instance, has no use for a feeder but may well have its
nest attacked by jays. It's not at all clear that feeders are having a
negative effect, Mr. Kress added, but the question is being discussed
In any case, there's not much to be done about jays. If you put up
feeders, they will come. And they are not a big problem. The two biggest
feeder-induced causes of death for birds are "cats and windows," Mr.
Kress said. "People should not feed birds if they have cats outside."
There are some ways to discourage cats, like keeping dogs or laying
chicken wire on the ground near the feeders. A large, free-running dog
tends to keep the cats away, and birds are generally unimpressed by
canine barking, posturing and headlong charges.
Windows are the other death trap. If they are big and clean, birds fly
into them. Taping fluttering paper to the glass is one way to warn birds
away. An excellent solution, Mr. Kress said, is to stretch fine-mesh
fruit tree netting over the outside of the window. The birds literally
bounce off. Our house is O.K. on this count. For one thing, we're a bit
behind on the window cleaning. For another, we have an old house, and
our windows have many mullions.
Birds don't fly into our house, but they do sometimes nest in it. We
used to have baby starlings falling down an unused chimney pretty
regularly until we put a protective cover on the top. It's exciting to
have a bird flying around the house. Dogs bark; people shout directions;
the bird starts to panic; people tell everyone else to quiet down; the
dogs keep barking; and finally, someone manages to steer the bird out
through an unmullioned opening. Anyway, that's the way it happens in our
Probably the big reason that groups like the Audubon Society offer
advice and support to people who feed birds is that setting up feeders
fosters interest in birds and conservation. Feeders can also give you
the opportunity to do research in a small way.
Mr. Kress is associated with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, a
nonprofit organization affiliated with Cornell University. The Cornell
lab has a number of so-called citizen science projects, like Project
Feeder Watch, which encourages people with feeders to send in
information on what they see, and the Great Backyard Bird Count, which
takes place in February. One researcher successfully used feeder
watchers to track the spread of a disease afflicting house finches.
One hope of Mr. Kress and others is that people who start with bird
feeders will move on to bird gardening. He has written a book called
"The Bird Garden," which is now part of the larger volume "The Audubon
Backyard Birdwatcher" (Thunder Bay Press).
His book has many suggestions on bird-friendly landscaping and plants,
including dogwood, mulberry and high-bush cranberry. I was particularly
pleased to see the suggestion that leaves be allowed to accumulate in
parts of the yard so that certain birds, ones unlikely to use the
feeders, can forage under them for worms and insects.
We haven't done any planned bird planting, although we do have some of
the plants he recommends. And we're trying to cut down on the crow-
feeding days. But I am delighted that birds enjoy a little natural
disarray, because, along with mullions, that's something we can provide.
For anyone who passes by my house and wants to know what the leaves are
doing on the ground, I now have an answer. Those aren't leaves; they're
my new bird feeders.
Stephen W. Kress, vice president for bird conservation at the National
Audubon Society, has a few simple tips for using bird feeders: clean
them once a year with a solution of water mixed with a little bit of
bleach, and rinse them thoroughly. Hang them away from windows and cats.
Set up several sorts of feeders with a variety of seed for different
Several Web sites are good sources of information about birds. The
Audubon Society site, www.audubon.org, includes links to local chapters,
many of which have workshops on bird feeding. The site of the Cornell
Laboratory of Ornithology, birds.cornell.edu, has tips on bird feeding,
as well as information on how to participate in research projects based
on data from bird feeders. Another site, birdsource.org, is maintained
jointly by both organizations.
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