Feeding Birds Safely

Unfortunately, there are many myths about birdfeeding that continue to prevent people from discovering an accessible, safe, and rewarding connection to wildlife. Read on to learn both what you decidedly don't need to worry about and what you can practically do to address real concerns.

How do birdfeeders affect birds? Do they create dependence or interfere with migration?

Feeding birds does not create dependence or prevent migration. Birds will continue to visit other natural food sources in addition to a feeder; if your feeder runs empty, they will simply move on to other food sources, as they would after the consumption of all the fruit on a wild plant, for example. Typical backyard feeders also do not impact migration. Some poorly written articles noting that some populations of Canada Geese have become year-round residents in parks where human food subsidies are plentiful imply that birdfeeders may have this unintended effect. No such effects have been observed, however, among the songbirds that visit backyard feeders. Don’t believe us? You can read the same thing from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, two science-based organizations with birds’ best interests in mind.

I'd like to feed birds, but I can't because it will attract rodents.

Not necessarily! There are many things we do all the time that attract more rodents than birdfeeding and there are easy ways to make sure your birdfeeders don't contribute to the problem. The leading cause of rodent issues are poor quality seed blends from hardware, grocery, and pet stores loaded with filler seeds that the birds don't eat - leaving a heap of rodent-attracting seeds on the ground. Learn how your food and feeder selection can make all the difference in our complete Rodent Remedies article.

I’ve read that I shouldn’t feed birds because this will encourage undesirable species like starlings, house sparrows, or cowbirds. Is this true?

All of these birds will visit feeders, but they are overall uncommon to occasional feeder visitors in our area. Most of our customers have few or none of these birds in their yards on a regular basis. If you are in the rare location where these birds dominate your yard and you do not want to encourage them further, you can choose foods that appeal only to certain birds, such as goldfinches and hummingbirds, or use caged feeders to exclude larger birds such as starlings.

Is it my feeder's fault that birds are hitting my windows?

Poor feeder placement can contribute to this problem, but is usually not the sole cause. Learn how to place your feeders safely and how to stop all bird collisions with your windows, in our Window Collisions article.

Are my feeders making birds more vulnerable to hawks?

First, remember that hawks are birds too, and should not be totally excluded from your sympathy. The Cooper’s Hawk, our most likely raptor to be seen near feeders, needs to catch smaller birds regularly—otherwise it will starve. They are part of the natural food chains that occur all around us whether we witness them or not. That said, feeders need not increase the actual risk posed to birds. Having some cover directly over your feeding station (to prevent direct dives at feeding birds) as well as nearby plants to hide in, will greatly reduce the amount of predation you see around your feeders. And the flocking behavior of birds at a feeder means more eyes are available to notice and warn others when a predator appears. Outside of the nesting season, you may see hawks hang around your neighborhood before moving elsewhere a few days later; in general you can treat a backyard hawk sighting as a rare and exciting event.

How can I prevent cats from eating my birds?

The first thing you should do is to optimize your feeder placement. Having clear lines of sight immediately surrounding your feeders will reduce the ability of cats to sneak up on birds. Ideally, the area immediately around your feeders will be open, but there will be cover elsewhere in your yard for birds to hide from avian predators. If cats can catch birds directly on your feeders, raise them above the cats’ reach, or attach wide trays to the bottom of tube feeders to block leaping cats. If ground-feeding birds are being caught, you may want to reduce the amount of seed that falls to the ground by using straight sunflower chips on a feeder with a tray, or using other no-mess foods such as suet, bark butter, peanuts, and mealworms.

There are numerous products available which aim to deter cats from a certain area. None of them seem to be 100% effective in all cases, but some may work well in your situation. Some of these methods include:

  • Liquid or granular repellents made variously from citrus, pepper, large predator dung or urine, or various foul-smelling plant extracts. Some are more effective than others, depending on the cat, and most need to be refreshed often to maintain effectiveness.
  • Ultrasonic devices that broadcast sound at an uncomfortable frequency for cats.
  • Motion sensitive water sprayers that issue a sudden forceful jet of water when their sensor is triggered.
  • Mats of prickly plastic spikes can make a specific area uncomfortable for a cat if it has a particular favored spot in your yard.

The most effective control, of course, is that practiced by cat owners. Unfortunately, when someone else’s cat wanders into our yard to hunt birds, we are usually limited in what we can do. Whenever possible, keeping cats indoors or having contained outdoor areas for cats’ recreation both prevents bird deaths and extends cats’ lifespans. For cats whose owners are sympathetic to keeping birds alive, but unwilling to deprive cats of their access to the outdoors, one effective measure is the use of bright colorful collars like those made by Birdsbesafe Cat Collars. We carry these in the store and have found them to be far more effective than collars with bells.