To Feed, or Not to Feed

Black-capped Chickadees. Photo: Helena Garcia/Great Backyard Bird Count

Audubon: Backyard feeders are good for birds, as long as you follow these simple guidelines.

A lot of people like to feed birds. More than 40 percent of Americans make it a regular habit. But a nibble of backyard suet or peck at the communal feeder may hold hidden risks for birds, reports a recent study in Ecology Letters.

Daniel Becker, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology, and his team wanted to better understand how the various ways we humans feed wild animals—whether intentional (feeders or tourist hangouts) or not (landfills or loose garbage cans)—affects their risk of infectious disease. So Becker and his team analyzed what was out there—20 published research papers on host-pathogen interactions in human-fed wild populations—finding intentional feeding changed wild animal behavior and diet enough to give parasites and viruses the upper hand. Out of these 20 studies, only a handful considered feathered species, but none were happy cases.

“Feeders can bring unexpected species together and bring birds together more frequently than normal, creating ideal conditions for parasites and other contaminates,” Becker says. That birds often crowd into tight spaces to get at the tasty morsels also makes it easier for pathogens to leap between birds.

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