The third week of January is when the birds most appreciate homeowners who keep the feeders filled. But is it necessary to feed our native birds with seed?
Back in November, I wrote a controversial column suggesting that we all add more plant material to feed the wild birds rather than continue to fill feeders with bird seed. The reasons are many, but most important is that attracting flocks of birds to a feeder is unnatural and is causing the spread of diseases. It could be that your kind-hearted gesture can actually harm our local birds.
Bird feeders also can contribute to the overpopulation of rats, squirrels and nuisance birds, such as pigeons and starlings. Some naturalists warn that spilled seeds can introduce invasive plants to our environment.
I did receive many thoughtful comments (and just a few bird-brained rants and “cheep” shots) from that column. And so the debate continues. Here are some opinions from readers.
“Thank you, thank you for making my neighbor stop with the bird seed. I get up early in the morning before dawn only to watch a huge rat scramble to his bird feeder. Now he believes me when I tell him the spilled seed from the feeder is attracting rats to our neighborhood.” — Email, Renton
Marianne: Don’t just blame bird seed for the rat outbreaks in Western Washington. Pet food left out overnight, compost piles filled with the wrong types of kitchen scraps (no meat scraps, or dairy products) and overgrown slopes of English ivy also make life easy for our growing rat population.
“I agree with your suggestions that we feed the birds less seed and provide more plant material. I disagree that we should stop feeding all birds – I will continue to feed the hummingbirds with sugar water all winter. I keep the feeder very clean and consider my bird friends great company. Plus I have never seen a rat drink from the humming bird feeder.” — Email, Bonney Lake
Marianne: I certainly don’t want the wrath of a humming bird, so please continue to keep your hummingbird feeders clean and filled with a sugar water solution. Planting salvia, huckleberry and mahonia will also attract humming birds year-round to your garden. I do agree that humming birds are not as easy to observe up close when they dine on winter blooming native plants. In the summer, try hanging a fuchsia instead of a feeder right outside your window.
“I am going to continue feeding the birds no matter what you say! Many birds flock to my feeders because there is not enough food in my neighborhood – and I have never seen a rat!” — Email, Maple Valley
Marianne: Bravo – you certainly have that right. Perhaps to avoid spreading bird diseases you could try spacing the feeders at least 12 feet from one another, using only enough seed that is consumed during the day?
Do not leave seed in feeders overnight (mold forms, and raccoons and rats visit) and most importantly, dip your feeders into a 10 percent bleach solution every few weeks and let the feeders soak for at least 10 minutes.
That will help get rid of the four bird diseases that are being spread from area feeders. The National Audubon Society assures all homeowners that the birds feasting from feeders are enjoying the seed as a supplement to their diet and they will not starve. The only exception is when the ground and all shrubs are covered with snow and daytime temperatures are below freezing. This is when using a feeder that hangs at least 4 feet from the ground and 8 feet from any overhanging structures (to keep the hungry rodents away) can save local birds from winter starvation.