If you’ve always been afraid to place a bird feeder in your yard fearing it would make it difficult for birds to survive on their own later on, don’t be. New research from Oregon State University found that the small songbirds that typically visit feeders are unlikely to develop an unhealthy reliance on them.
Bird Feeding Is Safe, Researchers Say
Jim Rivers, an animal ecologist at the OSU College of Forestry and head researcher in the study, concluded that putting out food for small birds in the winter months is highly unlikely to cause increased dependence on human-provided food. Of course, there’s still a lot that science doesn’t know about intentional feeding and the changes it might induce in wild bird populations.
Birds and Humans, the Experiment
So far, there has been only one manipulative experiment to test whether birds develop a dependency toward humans when they feed them regularly. The experiment used 67 black-capped chickadees and was conducted 30 years ago. The results found that there was no correlation between bird feeding and feeder dependency. To obtain this insight, researchers removed bird feeders that were used to provide supplemental food in winter for about 25 years. They then tracked the survival behavior of the birds to establish they were perfectly able to find food on their own.
The Dangers of Feeding Wildlife Animals
Every year, more than 50 million people across the United States put out food for wildlife animals. Although that act comes from a place of kindness, it can have unintended consequences for free-ranging animal populations that, according to Rivers, are best documented in birds. The downsides include changes in migration patterns, disease transmission, and restructuring of local communities. Evidence suggests that it can also change birds’ bill structure.
It’s not all bad, however. Bird and wildlife feeding can also lead to wintertime survival, reproductive output, and enhanced body condition. In the end, if we are being mindful not to change the natural environment of these animals, we will likely do more good than harm.