[Guest post by Ellen Honeycutt]
Feeding the birds with backyard bird feeders is a popular thing to do. It’s a “feel good” activity that gives joy to those that watch the birds from their window and delights the birds that are willing to visit them. The more birds that visit, the happier the humans are. Feeders and seeds are widely available; you can even find supplies in grocery stores. There are also stores devoted to backyard feeding and bird watching and, in 1989, the National Bird-Feeding Society (NBFS) was formed. I’m sorry to say, however, that bird feeders are not saving the world. They are not even saving most of the bird species.
You see, not all birds visit bird feeders – in fact, most birds don’t visit bird feeders! In my area, the birds that visit feeders represent just a small fraction of the total number of bird species that pass through the area. Traditional seed feeders attract tufted titmice, black-capped chickadees, white breasted nuthatches, bluejays, cardinals, Carolina wrens, goldfinches, mourning doves, house finches, some species of woodpeckers, and a few others depending on what kind of seeds are in the feeders.
NBFS identifies 20 species as common bird feeder visitors in the Eastern US. That represents a very small percentage of all species of birds that either live in Georgia year-round or spend a season here. There is no mention of the American robin, the brown thrasher (our state bird), eastern phoebe, waxwings, thrushes, flycatchers, warblers, raptors, owls, ducks and well over 100 others (there are over 925 species of birds in North America).
Even without bird feeders, some birds have adapted fairly well so far to human disturbance. The American Robin, for instance, continues to maintain a fairly good population because they have adapted to our lawns, fields and city parks. They eat earthworms, insects and tree fruit (such as hawthorn, sumac and dogwood fruits).
Eastern Bluebirds, first affected in a negative fashion, now thrive thanks to intensive nestbox programs. Bluebirds get most of their food from insects during the summer and tree fruits during the winter.
Water sources also support birds, even those that don’t visit bird feeders.
So if bird feeders are not the answer, what is? INSECTS. Birds that don’t eat seeds, and even birds that do eat seeds, eat insects. Some birds eat fruit in addition to insects. But some only eat insects, and all birds feed insects to their chicks.
Well, there must be tons of insects out there, right? Unfortunately there are not as many as you might think. You see native insects – the kinds that native birds prefer – are adapted to feeding on plants. Native plants. When gardeners and landscape designers choose non-native plants instead of native plants, the available foliage to support insects like juicy caterpillars is reduced. When there is less food for caterpillars, there will be fewer caterpillars and birds will produce fewer chicks.
Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home, has a story about how when habitat is reduced, some people think that birds can just forage harder. They already spend their whole day looking for food, and people think they can just look a little harder?
No, that doesn’t happen. Instead, bird populations shrink and shrink until some birds just go away – they become extinct like the Passenger Pigeon and the Carolina Parakeet.
So if you truly want to support the birds, step away from the bird feeder and take a look at what you’re growing in your landscape: crape myrtle, camellia, lilac, Indian hawthorne, privet, forsythia, lawn … these plants might as well be plastic as far as our native insects are concerned.
Think about replacing some of your non-native plants with regionally appropriate natives. If you’re in the mid-Atlantic, consider a list of the top 20 plants (woody and herbaceous) that support Lepidoptera (think “caterpillars”). As you replace more and more of your non-natives, look for an increase in the number of birds in your yard, visiting your bird bath, nesting in your trees. They may not be at your bird feeder, but they will be there.
- Audubon Society: Common Birds in Decline
- Find your local native plant society – mine is Georgia Native Plant Society
- Support habitat and land conservation through organizations like The Nature Conservancy
[About Ellen Honeycutt: I am a passionate native plant gardener near Atlanta, GA who is learning to appreciate more every day the relationship that plants have with our native fauna. I created a personal blog, Using Georgia Native Plants, to help increase the level of regional native plant information available to average gardeners. I try to emphasize the beauty and versatility of native plants as landscape choices as well as the value to the local ecosystem.]
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