If you read this column, you’re probably fascinated with wild things. You probably want to surround yourself with them whenever possible. Lovers of wildlife usually want to bring a piece of the wilderness into their yards and even homes. It’s natural.
One way to do that is by setting up a bird feeder, or maybe a dozen of them. Who wouldn’t want to look out the window and see dozens of colorful songbirds, or hear them starting their day with cheery tunes? It seems like a no-brainer.
On the one hand, I hate to burst your bubble (no, really). But on the other — well, let’s look at the ways bird feeders can harm your feathered friends, and then you can decide.
You check your feeders every day, right? You diligently refill them, making sure all the birds in the yard have plenty to go around. No hungry bellies here.
What happens if you’re not there? Maybe you’re leaving for a weeklong cruise of the Caribbean. Or, if your luck is not so great, maybe you get rear-ended by a minivan and spend 10 days in the hospital. What happens when the feeders run empty?
You might reason that birds have been finding their own food for millions of years. Certainly a week won’t hurt. Except that you’ve created an artificial abundance, which has allowed more birds to set up territories than the natural food supply can support.
Now, your unfed birds are on their own, and having to go to other birds’ territories for sustenance. For some birds, this is no big deal. For others — those that are strongly territorial, or have small home ranges, or are raising a family — it can be a huge problem.
In a natural system, birds often congregate densely around food sources. However, no natural food source is as small and compact as a bird feeder. When a lot of individuals are sharing from the same dish, as it were, the risk of spreading disease is much higher.
Think of it like passing a bag of pretzels around a big room full of strangers. Everybody reaches into the bag opening and roots around with their grubby paws, trying to find a pretzel that isn’t broken. If somebody has a cold and less-than-ideal hygiene, everyone is exposed.
Bird baths are even worse, since most germs live longer in damp conditions. Replace that pretzel bag with a big glass of water. Pass it around and everybody take a sip. Seems like a great way to spread germs, huh? That’s because it is.
Your little cheep-cheeps aren’t the only ones that bird feeders attract. They’ll also be noticed by any bird predators that happen to be in the area. In more rural areas, those might include bobcats and foxes. But even in town, you’ll get hawks and neighborhood cats.
Now, whether this is a positive or negative will depend on your particular point of view. If you enjoy the predator/prey interactions that you will be able to witness if you spend enough time trying, then perhaps you’ll see indirectly feeding the predators as a good thing. However, I refer you back to the first point: Creating dependence. It’s never a good thing.
Junk food diet
A bird foraging on its own usually picks up a little of this, a little of that, and a dab of this over here. While there will sometimes be high levels of abundance with specific foods — for example, when beautyberries are in season, many birds eat a lot of them — there’s an overall balance of different foods.
But when birds eat primarily from feeders, there’s not much variety. Even the better bird seed mixes, which might have a dozen different ingredients, can’t come close to matching the broad spectrum of choices foraging birds have.
And remember, bird seed is supposed to attract birds. The best way to do that is with the seed equivalent of french fries: Fatty types like peanuts and sunflowers. While fat provides lots of energy for a bird on the go, it also packs weight on one that’s more sedentary (and especially on the ever-present squirrels).
Rats and roaches galore
Most bird seed blends include seed types that are cheap and less popular, such as millet and milo. These are eaten by some birds, but they’re mostly included as filler. But nothing really goes to waste. Something is going to eat it. And often, that something is rats and roaches.
There are several types of rodents that may come to enjoy the birds’ leftovers. Woodrats (aka citrus rats or roof rats) are abundant and unlikely to come into your home, although they might break into a shed or lanai — especially if you store bird seed there. Norway rats sometimes show up as well, and those can become house pests.
It’s also common to have palmetto bugs show up after dark, especially on warm damp nights. They’re a lot less picky than any bird.
As people who enjoy nature, we have to decide how much we’re going to mess with the natural balance. Yes, you can use feeders to bring many birds to you — but is it worth the risk to the birds themselves? My answer is no, and so there are no bird feeders in my yard. What are you going to choose?
Capt. Josh Olive is a fifth-generation native Florida Cracker and a Florida Master Naturalist, and has been fascinated by all sorts of wild things and places since he was able to walk. If you have questions about living with wildlife, email him at Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com. You can also follow him on Instagram @florida_is_wild.