A paper exploring the impacts of wildlife feeding on migration and disease suggests that one of the benefits of migration is that it allows animals to leave habitats where parasites have accumulated and eliminates infected individuals that cannot survive the journey, and so can reduce parasite infection in populations. “Staying in one place increases exposure to infection,” says Richard Hall, an assistant professor at the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia and co-author of the paper.

Feed Responsibly


According to Hall, the implications of bird feeding are also complex, and while feeders can facilitate the spread of diseases, they can in certain cases help improve bird condition.

“When you feed birds you aggregate them and that increases the transmission of parasites, but if you are feeding the right kinds of food it also means they can have a better immune function so even if they come in contact with another sick bird or parasite in the environment they may be better equipped to fight off an infection,” he says, “so there is a balance there.”


When done responsibly, backyard bird feeding can help birds and also offers people a personal connection to nature. Photos © iStockphoto.com/JJPaden

If done responsibly, many researchers say, feeding can help populations in need, especially in winter, and increase biodiversity conservation. “What we do as humans tends to have a negative impact on wildlife, and many of the species using garden feeders like goldfinches were negatively impacted by the intensification of agriculture. That’s why they were in decline, but now we are putting feeders and they are increasing,” says Plummer. “If we can compensate in some way for other negative effects we are having on some of these species, it feels like we are doing something beneficial.”


Backyard bird feeding also plays an important role in establishing personal connections with nature, with benefits to human health and well-being. “As we are more and more in big cities where nature is becoming rare and more difficult to encounter, bird feeding is a desperate search for some connection with nature. If you put a feeder in your garden, truly wild animals will come and visit you,” says Jones. “It is an extraordinary experience.”


The direct observation of the natural world can also get people to be more supportive of conservation efforts. “There is value in that human interactions with backyard birds make people realize the birds are in trouble, and we need to make more efforts to conserve what’s left,” says Bonter. 

A 2019 study that surveyed participants of Project FeederWatch in the U.S. to understand the connection between people’s emotions and what they observed at bird feeders, found that most people who directly observed a problem at their feeders, such as the presence of a cat or sick birds, reported they would take action.

“There is a high percentage of people who do something in response to what they see,” says lead study author Ashley Dayer, an assistant professor of human dimensions in the department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech. “People are doing a lot more than just the feeding itself. They are managing the predators out there, they are cleaning the feeders, they are taking a lot of actions.”


In Australia bird feeding is strongly discouraged, even though the proportion of people feeding birds is the same as in the Northern Hemisphere. “People are strongly motivated to feed birds and care about them, but they are doing so in the complete absence of any information or advice and don’t know how to do it properly,” says Jones, who just published a book, Feeding the Birds at Your Table, to advise people how to feed birds responsibly.


Backyard bird feeding can have benefits as long as it is done correctly, and a number of resources such as Project FeederWatch provide guidelines and steps people can take to create a safe feeding environment for birds, such as frequently cleaning feeders, spacing them far apart from each other to reduce exposure to disease, providing nutritionally appropriate foods, planting native species or recording data to allow scientists to better understand bird populations. With a recent study published in Science revealing that bird populations in the United States and Canada have fallen by 29 percent since 1970 — even species “once considered common and wide-spread” — people may become even more motivated to put out feeders to help birds, so making sure it’s done correctly will be important.

Story re-posted from Ensia. Written by Isabelle Groc