Keepers of the Flock: Reflections on Feeding Wild Birds

Jen Blood here, on a rainy evening of reflection after a rainy day of much of the same here in Maine. These days I live in Cushing, a little fishing village in the mid-coast, where I’ve rented a house with my mom for the past three years. While there are, inevitably, challenges to living with a parent when one is an adult, she’s quite a kick to hang out with, and there’s been something kind of wonderful about reconnecting these past few years. I’m 42 now, which means I’m becoming increasingly aware of that inevitable, onward march of time. I’ll be moving on to new digs come spring, so in anticipation of that, I’ve been getting a little sentimental about the things I’ll miss about this latest home of mine.

One of my favorite parts of this place is the deck just outside our back door, which looks out on an expansive lawn and a pond perfect for ducks, geese, trout, and turtles. My mom is a big fan of birds, so last year I went a little nuts and bought feeders and a bird bath, bird houses and birdseed, suet and flowers and bright red hummingbird feeders. The birds, naturally, were psyched about the arrangement. Over the course of the summer, we watched two batches of robins nest, an exhausted papa robin feeding the babies until they were plump little fuzzballs just testing their wings.

latest robins

We watched house finches nest on the other side of the porch, their antics once the babies were grown riotous to watch. There were hummingbirds and woodpeckers, cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees and nuthatches and red-winged blackbirds and tufted titmice (if you, like me, are not convinced titmice is the correct word, see this great post at Bird Watcher’s General Store). There were, in other words, a lot of birds.

Because I love animals and try to be a good steward of the planet, feeding this many birds naturally led to the question: Should I actually be feeding wild birds? I’ve been taught since I was little not to feed the bears at the zoo or the raccoons in my yard, regardless of how cuddly they might look. Which, let me tell you, was not a popular position when I was seven. That’s not just for my well-being, however; it’s for theirs. Woodpecker (2)But, try as I might, I haven’t found anything definitive telling me that feeding the birds is a bad thing. There’s no question that it’s quite the industry: “Households in the United States and the United Kingdom put out over 1 billion pounds of food, including seeds, bread and even peanuts, for backyard birds each year,” according to this article at www.livescience.com. The same article cites a 2008 study done by a team of researchers from the University of Exeter and Queen’s University Belfast, which came to the conclusion that, “The birds given more to snack on in the winter months laid eggs earlier than the birds in the other group, and they had an average of one more nestling that flew away from the nest successfully.”  In other words… Feeding wild birds is not only okay, it’s good for them. At least, it is according to that single study — I’m sure there are dissenters.

There is some disagreement as to whether it’s wise to continue feeding wild birds during the spring and summer months, but the Cornell Lab of Ornithology takes the position that it’s fine as long as you keep things clean.

 

CardinalBetween my mom and I, we’ve managed to do that, and these days find ourselves keepers of a diverse flock. In the mornings when I’m here, I have a set routine in which I take my pup Killian out for a walk around the back forty, come in and make breakfast, and then — before sitting down to eat — go outside to feed the birds. Right now, that means black oil sunflower seeds, wild bird food, and roasted, unsalted peanuts still in the shell. After doing this for months, I’ve become accustomed to the routine once the food is out and I’m back inside, though I still get a kick once I see the first chickadee wend its way to the railing. That sole chickadee seems to provide a signal to the others.

22910023849_76cc2aa107_zThe blue jays — who are huge fans of the peanuts — swoop in next, cramming one peanut down their gullet before grabbing another to fit in its beak. Woodpeckers head for the suet. Cardinals, titmice, finches, and nuthatches sweep in when there’s an opening, but everyone takes off when the mourning doves head in. The mourning doves and red-winged blackbirds have become something of an issue, so we’ve set things up now so that the feeders — which discourage larger birds — are on one end of the deck, suet hangs from the trees, and a couple of open feeders on the other end of the deck hold black-oil sunflower seeds for the big guys. It’s kind of a zoo, to be honest.

22981934760_f4a182901c_zBut, it is — however temporarily — my zoo, and the mornings that I’ve spent watching the birds and the squirrels and the chipmunks lobby for position at the feeders, talking to my mom about life, death, taxes, and the latest episode of The Voice, are mornings that I expect will become treasured memories in the years to come. So, here’s to the winged creatures of the world, and the quiet moments of peace and reflection they bring us.

What about you? Do you have bird feeders at your place, or are you of the mind that wild things are better left to their own devices?

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3 Responses to Keepers of the Flock: Reflections on Feeding Wild Birds

  1. I feed birds in the cold months only, because we have bears. And as they say, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” Also, bears are not nice to feeders. In very harsh, extended winters I’ve put out feed for the deer, but otherwise I don’t encourage them in my yard. In the warm months, starting in early May, I put out only hummingbird feeders. If I don’t get it out soon enough, our resident male ruby-throat sits on the telephone wires and looks grumpy until I do.

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  2. We are bird feeders with a routine not unlike yours, Jen. We put our array of feeders out in early November (it’s important to get the poles in the ground before it freezes) and stop filling them in early May, also except for a hummingbird feeder. We also put out oranges in the spring to draw Baltimore Orioles. It is such a delight to watch the feeders on a winter morning, and to have a yard filled with birdsong in the early spring.

    In early- to mid-May (perhaps late April this year, considering how far ahead the season is) we go out in the early morning to look for warblers as they migrate through. They are spectacular!

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  3. Fascinating post, Jen. I do indeed feed the birdies. I keep the squirrels from feasting at the feeder but they gather enough on the ground. So do the turkeys. I’ve read, as you have, that it’s fine to feed birds year round.

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