If you do an online search for a bird like the Scrub Jay, you soon learn that this species is listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as being vulnerable to extinction and federally threatened. Fewer than 5,000 Florida Scrub Jays remain. Their numbers have dropped by 90% over the past century due to the fact that the scrubby flatwoods they require in order to survive have become fragmented and destroyed by land development and agriculture.
It's natural for many wildlife lovers to want to help with the plight of our feathered friends. But feeding them isn't always the best solution. It can change bird and wild animal behavior and diet enough to allow parasites and viruses to gain the upper hand. Feeders can bring some unexpected species together or bring birds together more frequently than normal, thus creating ideal conditions for parasites and other contamination. Birds will often crowd into tight spaces around feeders to get at food and this makes it easier for pathogens to move between birds. Bird feeders have contributed to outbreaks of House Finch Eye Disease (Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis) and virulent strains of the respiratory disease Trichomoniasis (Trichomonas gallinae).
Food supplied by humans can also alter the behavior of wild animals. According to one study, Spanish White storks skipped their typical North African winter migration in favor of staying around the landfills they use as feeding grounds. This means sick birds that would normally be subject to migratory death have a chance to continue their lives and become a persistent source of disease exposure for other birds.
How to Feed Birds Without Promoting Disease
Should we stop feeding birds? Not necessarily. Migrating species sometimes find only frozen, snow-covered ground and are desperately in need of food to survive. Feeding birds is very important during harsh winters and there are a number of simple things you can do to avoid negative outcomes.
Bird-feeding is also a very enjoyable year-round hobby for many people. The National Audubon Society reports that bird-watching now ranks as one of the top 20 favorite outdoor hobbies in the U.S. Audubon’s website also recommends completely scrubbing out feeders several times a year with a 10% non-chlorine bleach solution and always doing so between seasons.
Research the favorite foods of the species you want to attract, the stye of feeder they prefer, and the best places to hang feeders. Bird seed mixtures designed for a wide variety of species are cheapest but can also be the most wasteful. They include fillers like milo which many bird birds will simply pick through and discard. This results in a mess under the feeder. When wet, this mess quickly becomes a sludgy mixture that can make birds sick. The sludge should be cleaned up in the winter or raked out when dry. To avoid exposing ground-feeding birds to the goo, make sure their food is somewhere that stays dry or has good drainage.
Do not feed birds old or spoiled seed, excessive amounts of white bread, old nectar, potato chips, raw meat, cookies, honey, salt or milk.
You can buy specific kinds of seeds for individual feeders and allow birds to choose their preferred types. This substantially decreases interactions between different bird species as well as the amount of waste generated. If you do feed the birds, remember that you’re also taking on the responsibility of cleaning up after them.
One frequently asked question is whether feeders should be taken down for the summer. That really depends on where you live. Natural food is abundant during the warm months. Does feeding birds during warm months disrupt the timing or routes of their migration to summer breeding grounds? There’s no evidence that the presence or absence of feeders alters the migration behavior of any backyard bird species. Birds that visit feeders during summer include species not present during winter. Depending on where you live, you may be visited by species that will be hundreds or thousands of miles away later in the year. During the summer, birds such as the male goldfinch that appear drab during winter are sporting their colorful breeding plumage. Once they’ve nested and their offspring have fledged, adult birds will introduce their young to your bird feeders and birdbaths. Warmer temperatures encourage closer viewing of birds. If you regularly sit on your patio or deck, the birds at nearby feeders and baths will get used to you and go about their business giving you the experience of being able to observe them up close.
Wildlife officials say the first taste of human food that most birds have is from a bird feeder. Once they do get a taste, they keep coming back for more throughout their entire lives. However, wildlife such as bears, raccoons, deer, and others will visit feeders as well and can put you and your pets in danger. For that reason, it's probably a good idea to take down feeders between the middle of March to the middle of November if you live in a location where bears are active.
Feeders should always be viewed as supplemental to natural foods provided by cultivating native plants. Make sure you grow lots of native plant species in your yard. This will attract many types of birds seeking both shelter and food.
(Credits: https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed; http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/tips/feeding_birds.html; http://blog.nwf.org/2013/04/summer-bird-feeding-the-case-for-and-against/; http://www.humanesociety.org/animals/resources/tips/feeding_birds.html)