Calif. ó Joy is the word that comes to mind as Margot
Bach describes how it feels to look out her
sliding-glass door and watch the songbirds fluttering
into her yard to eat the seed she puts out for them.
love to see them around," said Bach, 69. She had
just finished filling the cylindrical feeder on the
small concrete patio that pretty much fills the backyard
of her Pocket-area home. A variety of songbirds
twittered in the nearby trees.
love the sound they bring. I love the nests that they
Bachís seeming act of kindness ó a ritual shared by
the estimated 50 million Americans who feed birds around
their homes ó has become something of a controversial
practice in California in recent weeks. Last month,
state wildlife officials said that feeding birds is
"highly discouraged" following a disease
outbreak that killed an estimated 1,000 songbirds
outbreak, tied to salmonella bacteria, affected pine
siskins, a nomadic finch whose range extends across the
United States. Most of the bird corpses were found
around backyard feeders.
problems associated with bird feeders are well
documented," Department of Fish and Wildlife
spokeswoman Jordan Traverso said in an email.
"Sadly, bird feeders are for people, not for birds.
Like so many other things with wildlife, itís really a
people problem rather than a wildlife problem."
how big a problem? Is this common garden feature really
so damaging? The answer varies, depending on whom you
who work in the bird-feeding trade ó by one estimate a
$5.5 billion industry in North America ó say the
practice is safe. They argue that disease outbreaks are
preventable and rare.
Hays, executive director of the Wild Bird Feeding
Industry, a trade group based in North Carolina, said
research sponsored by her association found that
bird-feeding provides a direct benefit to birds.
data show that those birds who use wild bird feeders are
in better health than wild birds who do not have access
to bird feeders," Hays said.
Hochachka is assistant director at the bird population
studies program at Cornell Universityís Lab of
Ornithology, one of the nationís most esteemed bird
research centers. He said bird feeding can be helpful in
colder climates when heavy snow and ice cover birdsí
natural food. But overall, he said, the science is mixed
on whether feeding birds is beneficial to their health.
Hochachka noted, backyard feeders can bring less
tangible benefits, in terms of shaping societal values.
In an increasingly urban society, he said, bird-feeding
helps people connect with nature. That, in turn, helps
promote policy decisions that are less harmful to the
said he probably would not have become an ornithologist
if not for the backyard feeders around his home growing
itís just being able to see things first-hand, very
close, that sparked an interest in me. In terms of
general conservation and exposure to the natural world,
bird feeders are a way of making that easy and making
that connection," he said.
feeders actually play a role in the annual Great
Backyard Bird Count organized by Cornell, in concert
with the National Audubon Society. Each year in
February, people across the globe are asked to document
the birds they see in their backyards, local parks and
area wildlands. The data is used to understand songbird
is among the groups that say feeders can be good for
birds, as long as one follows guidelines for proper feed
and sanitation. That includes buying feeders that
feature perches rather than large platforms where waste
can accumulate. It also means scrubbing out feeders with
a 10 percent nonchlorinated bleach solution at least a
few times a year, and researching the favorite foods of
the species one wants to attract, according to the groupís
website. The society partners with a seed producer whose
bags bear the Audubon insignia.
Michael Lynes, director of public policy for Audubon
California, isnít exactly enthusiastic about the
general, if people ask me personally, I tell them the
birds will be OK if you donít feed them," Lynes
said. "You donít need to do that to help them
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wildlife officials, meanwhile, say to look no further
than the recent pine siskin deaths to see why they
encourage people to give up backyard feeding entirely.
Rogers, who conducts bird-death investigations for the
Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that since
mid-December, her office has received hundreds of
reports of dead pine siskins in backyards from the south
coast to Redding.
revealed the birds succumbed to salmonellosis, a disease
caused by salmonella, which can spread through bodily
fluids when birds congregate. Rogers said similar
outbreaks have occurred each of the past few years. The
deaths have a common theme: "Almost exclusively at
backyard feeders," she said.
said itís next to impossible to clean a feeder fast
enough to prevent the disease from spreading.
birds also comes with other risks, Rogers and others
say. Feeders can help sustain populations of invasive
pests. If set up in a poor location, they can result in
birds dying in window strikes, and make it easier for
predators such as house cats to kill birds.
instead urged bird lovers to turn their backyards into
sanctuaries filled with native plants that provide
shelter and a natural source of food. In general, birds
are attracted to gardens rich with berries, seeds,
flowers and insects. Several experts recommended asking
local nurseries for native plant suggestions.
the Pocket-area bird lover, said she goes out of her way
to keep her backyard feeder clean. She hangs the device
so that her cats canít easily snatch a bird while it
feeds. She said she owes the birds a safe meal,
considering the pleasure they give her.
me, itís peaceful," she said. "Having birds
sort of completes my ecosystem."