To Feed or Not to Feed

Junco that just hit the window

This junco hit our second story window and sat stunned, but alive, here on the ground last summer.  Juncos are sweet little birds that we see from May to September all around our house pecking at seeds on the ground.  They visit our feeder during this time but mostly stay on the floor of the deck or on the ground under the feeder, hopping around picking up fallen sunflower heart pieces and birch seeds.  They can leave so late in the season, I believe, because they are only flying as far as the southern coast of Alaska where it doesn’t freeze so hard in the winter.

Junco that hit the windowMy husband and I immensely love watching our feeder birds:  redpolls, juncos, chickadees, and hairy and downy woodpeckers.  He often places small amounts of bird seed on the snow mounds that cover the deck railings and flower pots in the winter so that redpolls don’t have to mob the feeder and so that we can see them closer.  We stand at the window and marvel at how they can live at 30 below zero, and at their quick movements and little arguments.

But I wonder that having a bird feeder is the best thing for the birds.  Many birds hit our windows, but by far most of them end up alive (though certainly a bit damaged afterwards).  After they hit the windows as they sit stunned until they are able to fly away, they are undoubtedly vulnerable to predation.  There’s a neighborhood cat that I fear visits in the wee hours of the morning in the summer and I have no idea if it uses the feeder as a baiting station.  I have no evidential reason to believe this but am concerned.  Other than that cat our neighborhood totally lacks outdoor cats as far as we can tell.  This one we’ve only seen twice in our 5 years here.  (And our two cats don’t go outside without being chaperoned.)

Feeding birds seems on the surface not a bad idea.  But is it good to get them reliant on what we provide?  So that they lose just a little bit of their natural foraging skills to their eventual detriment?  What about the seed itself… are there pesticides on it, or fungicides?  Is it even good for a redpoll or chickadee to eat that much sunflower heart instead of what it would normally find in nature?  Could there sometimes be mold on the seeds that would be dangerous to the birds?  Is feeding birds related to the sickness of chickadees that results in 6-10% of them having beak deformities?  I’ve read up a bit on this topic and there are not a lot of answers to be had (although plenty of guesses and opinions).

So unfortunately, I’m not convinced that feeding birds is the absolute right thing to do, but I’m unwilling to give it up unless I see direct evidence that it harms them more than it helps them.  The only way I know for sure that it harms them is when they hit the windows.  Redpolls eating seed outside windowI’ve went to great lengths to try to prevent it, such as wiring and beads that I once strung across our largest window for a few years.  The thing is, I know that they would hit the windows even if we didn’t purposefully draw them here to our house with food.

Alas, it would be a sad sad day for my husband and I if we were to decide that the harm to the birds outweighs the benefits (to us and the birds).

You can see here the redpolls chowing down today on the seed my husband has strewn on the snow in front of the window.  The temperature gauge doesn’t go colder than 20 below – it’s about 30 below zero (F) right now.  I can’t imagine those poor little guys can’t use some extra food at this temperature!

But am I justifying?  This summer I plan to try something else on the windows:  CDs strung on wires or string.  I’ve also switched out the bird feeder when it was just too hard to clean anymore.  Any tips are welcome!  Thanks for reading.

17 responses

  1. Sharon Holdinghausen

    Well I don’t think I can give you any good suggestions since we are not lucky enough to have alot of wildlife
    where I live but it must be pretty awsome to be able to look out your window and see all the birds right outside.

    December 17, 2012 at 7:26 am

    • It is, we love it! Thanks for reading the blog Sharon.

      December 18, 2012 at 1:49 am

  2. That’s a tough one. Moving the feeders further away helps and getting a fake owl sticker for your window or a figurine may help. Then you see far fewer birds though…

    December 17, 2012 at 7:44 am

    • I read that you should put the feeder either farther away or very close. I have some ideas that should help but I probably can’t do anything until the summer and I can’t stop feeding them now in the middle of the winter. Thanks for the comment!

      December 18, 2012 at 1:52 am

      • I have very big feeders at my windows. I feel bad about the window casualties too. I think many of those are inexperienced/ juvenile birds. Besides right now we need something to look at outside!

        Stay warm

        December 18, 2012 at 1:59 am

  3. Aah, your stunned-junco photos scared me – glad she was okay! I would definitely be worried about them hitting the window; it’s dangerous while they’re stunned, as you say, plus they may well have brain damage that will impair or kill them later. When we get dead birds turned in at the museum (to be made into specimens) sooooo many of them are “window strikes,” and when you go into the skull you see just how delicate the bone is and how much bleeding in the brain case there can be.
    One thing that might help would be to have something dense in front of the window – a bush or trellis – because the strike will do less damage if the bird is flying slowly to maneuver, rather than zipping along fast in apparently open space. But how you would do that without blocking your view, I’m not sure.
    As for the feeding itself, seed that is left out soggy can get moldy, and bringing lots of birds together will naturally increase disease transmission. In some places feeders are recommended only at certain times of year (usually the non-breeding season; feeders during the breeding season can help invasive species compete with the locals, which is bad). And you may be affecting the birds’ diet, or causing them to use their foraging skills less, although overall I think you’re probably supplementing their natural diet, not replacing it. (Unless you have a HUGE feeder…)
    Sorry, I’m more rambling than helping. It’s complicated and, as you say, there’s conflicting information out there. I guess I think that if you’re going to feed sometime, harsh winters are probably the time to do it, and just make sure you keep the feeder clean. And try to stop them hitting the windows!

    December 17, 2012 at 8:43 am

    • Thanks! I was hoping you would comment. I love your blog.

      From what you say, my concerns are legit. I will put together a plan to avoid window collisions and see if that fixes the problem. I’m also going to be very careful about not leaving old seed in there especially if it rains and gets wet.

      The birds practically disappear from the feeder during May and June then start to come back in July and August.

      Anyway, that’s good info. I think if I can minimize the window strikes we can continue to feed the birds and enjoy them especially in the winter. Thanks again!

      December 18, 2012 at 1:47 am

      • Glad I could help! I hope you continue to enjoy watching the birds and can find a way to make the windows less perilous – I’d be interested to hear what you end up doing.

        December 18, 2012 at 7:29 am

      • I have some ideas and I will share them soon. Thanks again 🙂

        December 22, 2012 at 3:02 am

  4. arnoldthearmadillo

    One cold winter the birds were feeding in the garden, to my surprise a hawk came down like a bolt, took a sparrow and flew off. After my jaw came back to its usual place, I decided that I was feeding the birds that were feeding the birds, there is a whole chain that relies on your good nature.

    December 17, 2012 at 9:25 am

    • So true! I had a small falcon hit my window once (I posted on it earlier this year) but that’s the only time I’ve seen a predatory bird anywhere near my house.

      December 18, 2012 at 1:48 am

      • arnoldthearmadillo

        It was a very cold English winter in my case, i guess that some opportunities cannot be missed 🙂

        December 18, 2012 at 9:28 am

  5. Chancy and Mumsy (Mag)

    We have had bird feeders out for many, many years. There are bird decals you can purchase to put on your windows that helps with keeping birds from flying into the windows. They can probably be found in several places but I buy most of our bird supplies from Duncraft. Window screens help a lot too. We have very few birds come to our feeders when the wild berries and other things birds eat are plentiful in the wild. But then they come back big time in the late fall and eat from the feeders until late spring. We also keep out suet blocks to help keep them warm in the cold months. I am in my 70’s and all my life I have known people who feed birds. I love feeding, watching and photographing them. Hugs

    December 18, 2012 at 10:45 pm

    • I will check out Duncraft, thanks! (Feeding birds is wonderful. I am enjoying them even as I type.)

      January 1, 2013 at 11:06 pm

  6. I don’t have a bird feeder and I have had 2 birds fly into our two story window facing the back yard. The first one hit so hard and was stunned for so long that I had to try and scoop him up in a bucket to move him out of the way of the dog. I like watching the wild life around me here in the mountains but have yet to put up a bird feeder. It’s on my list of “someday”.

    January 3, 2013 at 12:38 am

  7. Hi Judy,

    If you do put out seed, make sure it’s an amount that gets entirely eaten that day. Avoid seed mixes that leave leftover corn as this can easily attract germs and pests. Keep feeding stations clean to avoid diseases such as avian pox. If you can’t wash the feeders, make disposable ones from milk cartons which can be thrown out when dirty.

    Like us, birds require water in order to digest grains. If you offer seed, you should also offer water. Even when seeds are available, some birds, such as chickadees, still prefer insects in their myriad forms (egg, larva, adult) and know where to find them in the forest year round.

    I offer mostly water in the summer and bacon fat in the winter, with little seed. However, in the past I’ve tamed chickadees and nuthatches to feed in my hand, which is an absolutely awesome experience. If you’d like to try it, I wrote some tips at

    Happy new year!

    January 3, 2013 at 11:32 am

  8. We are a part of the ecosystem, not apart from it. All we can do is try to be mindful of the part we play.

    January 12, 2013 at 8:14 pm

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