It’s a cold, moist winter dawn in Eastern Ontario. A warm pink light rises from the east masking the bitterly cold air. At the edge of a forest clearing, slender bird-feeders dangle from glazed branches while dozens of small finches nibble niger seed from the feeder’s tiny ports. Nearby, a slab of raw suet, secured to a thick birch trunk constitutes a perch for a famished Hairy Woodpecker. Meanwhile, dozens of Blue Jays descend from the canopy like ornate snowflakes, down to a table covered in corn and millet.
In my early years, winter scenes like this helped kindle a fascination with nature, and all things that lived in the wilderness. Observing nature isn’t always easy. So, placing feeders around the yard allowed me to get close to some of them.
Many of us lure birds to our property with free food. Benevolence is important, but not our only objective. We take great pleasure in being surrounded by a diversity of colourful and animated creatures. The fact that we’re pleasing our avian guests with food is a bonus.
But, some argue that if we make it too easy for them, we reduce their ability to adapt, and survive in harsh conditions where food is less plentiful and temporary. Perhaps this is true in some cases.
Another argument is that we sometimes attract undesirable forms of wildlife to these feeding stations. Some people have waged war against squirrels, raccoons and other rodents. Even pigeons and crows often get a bad rap from property owners. In extreme cases, you might attract an omnivore like a bear. You can say goodbye to your bird-feeders then.
A recent activity that troubles me is the incessant feeding of store-bought mice to wild, over-wintering owls. This is a technique used by photographers to get dramatic photos of a predator catching prey. The owl is located, the mouse released, and as the predator flies in for the kill, all cameras blast away. Unlike nomadic and migratory songbirds, there is a danger when large predators become accustomed to humans. Owls in particular are often misunderstood, symbolic in many cultures as the harbingers of ill-will. To make matters worse, after several straight days of being fed live mice by people, I have watched them fly right up to people, and their cars, expecting food. I have even been followed by some of these owls. In one case, more than a kilometer.
Still, there are many good arguments for maintaining a bird-feeding station.
First, keep in mind that 70 to 90 percent of songbirds don’t survive the first year. “Most birds die through inexperience, for they are constantly at risk from predators, disease, accident and food shortage. Newly independent fledglings are at greatest risk and mortality gradually decreases as the birds become more experienced” (A Dictionary of Birds – Buteo Books – 1985). Once a bird makes it beyond its first year, it has gained much needed skills for survival, and it’s likely to live for several more years. The point here is that a high mortality rate is normal, especially for younger, inexperienced birds.
I also believe most birds do NOT depend on our free handouts. They merely modify their behaviour temporarily to take advantage of our generosity. Throughout migration, birds encounter abundant food sources. They stop to nourish themselves, but their instincts push them to continue migration, leaving behind rich food supplies that might have been adequate for their survival. Around Ottawa, White-throated & White-crowned Sparrows are common during migration, but very rare in winter, even though they can survive harsh conditions where food is abundant.
In winter, many birds traveling through their territory include stops at several food source. If they relied on only one source of natural food, the supply would surely exhaust itself before the end of the season, and the birds’ chance of survival would diminish. Black-capped Chickadees, for example, form small flocks and travel through large territories searching for food. If your bird-feeding station is along their route, they will stop for a visit. If you go on vacation, the birds might continue visiting, but move through your property much faster, spending more time in productive areas.
Many finches and other nomadic species move around constantly during the winter. They’re relatively unaffected by harsh conditions like low temperatures, provided they have lots to eat. They move from one area to the next, capitalizing on their discoveries. For example, a flock of Pine Grosbeaks can finish off a berry-rich mountain ash in a couple of days. Once finished, they move on. These species have successfully behaved like this much longer than humans have been on the planet.
Some species have become more common during winter, in part, because of bird feeders. Since it’s easier for them to “battle the elements” on a full gizzard, they have a greater survival rate. Mourning Doves and Northern Cardinals are two species that have expanded their range northward. Although global warming may be a factor, I’m convinced they are slowly adapting to northern suburbia because of our free handouts. However, we can say the same thing about crows and gulls, two species that rarely come to bird feeders. In most areas, their populations are increasing in winter because they have adapted to our refuse and garbage disposal.
Some birds occasionally wander out of their normal range, or fail to move far enough south in fall migration. These birds eventually become desperate for food since they find themselves in unfamiliar territory or in a habitat that doesn’t suit their normal adaptations. In these cases, when they find a rich food supply (like a bird feeder), their survival might depend on it. If the free handouts suddenly stop, winter’s wrath might take its toll on the misguided, and unprepared bird. A few years ago, my parents had a Myrtle Warbler coming to their feeders. It fed exclusively on suet-cake pieces that were conveniently cut into small chunks for the warbler. Chances are this bird would have perished if it wasn’t for my parents’ diligence and generosity.
But, is this any different than caring for a pet, keeping livestock, or cultivating a beautiful garden?
We all consume nature for our own benefit. When it comes to wild birds, with only a few exceptions, I believe we can feed them without guilt or worry.
Be sensitive, and just enjoy the show.
January 3, 2011