Native Plant Trust

Feeding Birds: An Eco-gardener's Approach

By Christopher Leahy, Native Plant News (Winter 2019)

Rather than regarding your yard as a feeding station, why not see it as diverse bird habitat, managed on the basis of native plant diversity?

Humans have been feeding birds, at least inadvertently, well, forever. The same kinds of birds that now visit our  conscientiously tended feeders—especially titmice, seed eaters and corvids (the family containing the crows and jays)—figured out, probably in the early stages of their evolution, that they had a dependable food source in the leavings of other animals, including, eventually, humans. Village scenes by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525–69) show the usual suspects scouring the neighborhood for crusts and crumbs. In one skating scene an actual bird feeder has been set up in a nearby yard, though on close inspection this proves to be a trap in which a heavy door is rigged to fall upon the birds gobbling tidbits beneath. (This may be the place to point out that birds have doubtless provided more food for humans than the reverse, even to the point of extinction. But that’s the subject of another essay.)

But while bird feeding sensu lato has deep roots in human history, it is only since the 1930s that feeding our feathered brethren has become a highly organized pastime and industry, currently involving 55 million Americans who purchase 3 billion of pounds of seed, suet, meal worms, and other edibles, and spend $800 million on paraphernalia such as specialized seed dispensers and squirrel baffles each year. Certainly there is no doubt that watching birds gobbling our offerings gives great pleasure to people of all ages. And despite assertions of some negative effects of the pastime—e.g., providing unintended feeding stations for predators or venues for the spread of avian diseases—most have been shown to be fairly negligible or correctable.

However, many, if not most people who feed birds also do so under the impression that they are providing necessary sustenance, without which many birds would perish, especially during our harsh northern winters. This is simply untrue. Birds are extraordinarily well-adapted for finding the kind of food they require and are vastly better equipped than our species for living outdoors in abominable weather, due to the highly effective insulation system called plumage and an exquisitely sensitive metabolism. To summarize: Feeding birds as usually practiced is for the enjoyment of people, not the welfare of birdlife.

The origin of the hungry bird myth is probably located in the early bird conservation movement in the mid-to-late 19th century. It was a time when birds were indeed under threat from human ignorance, greed, and depredation. Passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlews, egrets, and other species “harvested” for the commercial value of their meat or feathers were on or over the brink of extinction. Many species, especially crows and raptors, were condemned as pests to be destroyed. Hunting regulations were more lax than now, and men frequently carried shotguns as they went about their daily business, from time to time potting a passing duck or loon just for the sport of it. And boys with slingshots were ubiquitous and proud of their prowess in hitting small songbird targets.

One solution that early conservationists hit upon in the early 20th century was the establishment of bird sanctuaries, which would provide safe havens for the birds sheltering within their bounds. This proved to be a spectacularly good idea, not so much because large populations of birds were protected, but because the sanctuaries became centers of education about the beauty and value of birds and of advocacy, where legislative strategies were formulated, that soon brought “market gunning” to an end and prohibited the indiscriminate slaughter of most non-game birds.

Alas, in their well-intentioned zeal to protect birds, but driven by the misapprehension that birds were not getting enough to eat, early bird conservationists came up with the idea of planting shrubs that produced abundant fruit and in many cases thick cover for native birds. These included European buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) and glossy-buckthorn (a.k.a. glossy false buckthorn, Frangula alnus), Russian- and autumn-olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia, E. umbellata), multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), Asian honeysuckles (Lonicera maackii, L. japonica, L. tatarica, L. morrowii, to name some common ones), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), black and pale swallowwort (Cynanchum louiseae, C. rossicum), and other fast-growing non-native species.

In the early years the project seemed a spectacular success: birds of many species loved the fruits and built their nests in the thick shrubbery; they also spread the digested seeds far and wide, creating even more bird food. I need not explain to members of Native Plant Trust the down side of this experiment.

Another possible criticism of conventional bird feeding is that it is very limiting. At least in New England, it is typically practiced mainly during the colder months and provides a fairly restricted menu, which results in attracting a select clientele of seed and suet eaters. Rather than regarding your yard as a locus for a feeding station, why not see it as potentially diverse bird habitat to be managed on the basis of native plant diversity? Call it a gardener’s approach to bird feeding. This will increase species diversity manyfold—though admittedly, you will have to pay closer attention to your new, enlarged “feeder”—possibly with binoculars—and not just glance out the window to see what the nuthatch is up to.

A promising starting point might be to bone up on the 50 common birds likely to visit your yard regularly at one season or another. This will, of course, depend upon where you live: the boreal spruce forests of northern New England harbor very different species than the mixed deciduous woodlands further south, and the rich mesic forests of the Berkshire Hills and Green Mountains are home to many birds that would be disoriented on the acidic heathlands of Cape Cod.

Stage Two could be researching the food and nesting preferences of your Top 50. Frugivores such as waxwings and thrushes suggest the inclusion of native shrubs and trees, such as winterberry (Ilex verticillata), mountain ash (Sorbus americana), and shadbush (Amelanchier spp.), whose fruits are known to attract birds. Nectivores such as hummingbirds need flowers with readily accessible nectaries, preferably at the red end of the spectrum, such as cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis). And a number of seed eaters that are shy of bird feeders will come eagerly to a riotous patch of wild grasses (including Elymus, Sorghastrum, Andropogon, Panicum, and Eragrostis spp.) and flowering forbs such as native thistles, asters, goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and blazing stars (Liatris spp.).

While insectophobic gardeners may raise an eyebrow, bird-oriented ones need to get comfortable with the fact that many of our songbirds, such as the spectacular wood warblers, are exclusively insectivorous, and even birds that generally prefer a vegetarian diet feed their young exclusively on invertebrates. Coupled with the fact, now well-established scientifically, that we are in the midst of an “insect apocalypse,” as many science journalists are calling it, the conservation-minded gardener should embrace counterintuitive strategies of encouraging the presence of insects and their kin—think spiders, mites, centipedes, sawbugs, and other denizens of soil and leaf litter—rather than trying to banish them. Introducing plants whose flowers are popular with pollinating insects and setting out “bee hotels” for native species are two readily accomplished action items.

In addition to being sensitive to birds’ feeding preferences, some knowledge of the varieties of nesting habitats should also inform gardening choices. Common types and representative species that inhabit most New England ecoregions include: (1) tree nesters (e.g., American robin, Baltimore oriole), which are probably best accommodated by not over-pruning mature trees; (2) species that require thick cover (e.g., gray catbird, Carolina wren), such as a good-sized, impenetrable shrub patch of viburnum (Viburnum spp.) or spicebush (Lindera benzoin); (3) ground nesters (e.g., ovenbird, Eastern towhee), which prefer an area of undisturbed ground with thick leaf litter; and (4) cavity nesters (e.g., titmice, nuthatches), whose pre-occupied domiciles in the wild are constructed almost exclusively by woodpeckers, though properly designed and sited bird boxes can also work.

One insidious threat to a biologically diverse yard (and an affliction to which some gardeners are prone) is the tidiness pandemic sweeping through our communities, especially those suffering from what I call Rapid Gentrification Syndrome. The effect of this neatness plague is to eliminate all naturally occurring vegetation on residential and municipal property and replace it with specimen trees and greenhouse ornamentals smothered in bark mulch. Birdwatchers are particularly sensitive to the new scourge because they witness the utility to migrant birds of scrubby thickets that may seem unsightly to some gardeners. In short, embrace a wilder aesthetic and the ecological value of messiness.

Finally, even if you want to provide more natural feeding opportunities for your local birds, this doesn’t mean you have to take down all your feeders. There is no question that watching a red-bellied woodpecker on the suet or reappreciating the spectacular plumage of a blue jay works best when you put out some easy eats not far from your windows. But it’s important to acknowledge that you’re doing this for your own (legitimate) pleasure, not to support starving birds.

Christopher Leahy is Gerard A. Bertrand Chair of Natural History and Field Ornithology (Emeritus) at Mass Audubon and an Overseer of Native Plant Trust.

Making Your Yard Bird-friendly

Follow these tips to create safe, inviting bird habitat.

  1. Kill your lawn (let it go to seed).
  2. Leave (or create) an area of rank grasses and wildflowers (tidy the edges if you must). This can actually be quite attractive with proper species selection.
  3. Don’t over-prune trees (or prune them at all).
  4. Leave standing dead trees.
  5. Woodpeckers “sing” by hammering on hollow trucks and create nesting cavities in them for themselves and other species. When the dead trees fall, leave them on the ground to rot—they are excellent invertebrate habitats and therefore bird buffets.
  6. Retain areas of heavy brush such as catbriar (Smilax spp.) as nesting habitat, shelter from raptors, and winter cover.
  7. Encourage insects with appropriate plantings.
  8. Plant native fruit-bearing shrubs and eliminate invasive species; note that not all non-native plants are invasive, and many Eurasian steppe forbs (such as clovers, vetches, and composites) common in highway medians and the like are attractive to insects, hence to birds.
  9. Avoid all garden chemicals.
  10. We love our house cats, but it is critical for bird conservation to keep them indoors. Free-ranging cats are responsible for the extinction of 33 bird species worldwide and kill an estimated 480 million birds a year in the U.S. alone (Hildreth, et al., University of Nebraska Extension, 2010).