Do Feeders Create Dependency?


Feeding wild birds, especially during the winter months, generally is assumed to be beneficial. But could there be a downside to this enjoyable hobby that over 63 million people participate in? If birds become overly dependent on humans and their feeders, would they fail to develop, or lose, the ability to forage efficiently on naturally occurring foods?

Our loyal customers and listeners to our radio show have many questions regarding this topic. We will be using an actual scientific study to help you understand this ongoing debate about serving food to wild birds and then you decide. This will be a two-part series. Today’s article will describe, in detail, the actual process used in the study. Next article, we will report the findings and conclusions of this exhaustive study.

From 1984-1988, Professor Margaret Brittingham of the University of Wisconsin conducted scientific studies involving black-capped chickadees. Chickadees are one of the smallest birds that remain in the north during winter. They are also one of the most common resident birds found in most regions of the northern range of the USA. The small body size and high metabolic rate create a large need for energy. They spend much of the daylight hours foraging for food. At night, they roost in protected areas and become hypothermic. Even with this process, chickadees can lose 10% of their body weight overnight. They must find food to survive each and every day during the winter months.

Professor Brittingham decided to compare two very distinct groups of chickadees in the Wisconsin regions. She banded both groups with the help of volunteers and monitored their food intake. The first group of chickadees, about 35, had never seen bird feeders. We know that chickadees have a limited feeding range, approximately one mile. She chose an area of woods miles away from any human habitat. The second group of chickadees was located in the same region, but near human feeders that had been in existence for over 20 years. These potentially-dependent birds were about 49 in total. The color coded bands allowed researchers to monitor the number of visits to feeders filled with sunflower seeds that each bird used prior to the start of the study.

Both groups were observed in their natural surroundings for two years. After that, she had the volunteers immediately remove all bird feeders from the second group before the next winter season approached. Both banded groups of chickadees would experience the same weather during the upcoming October-April study period. Average low temperatures were below freezing with many days during this time frame below zero. No attempts were made to offer any human foods sources.

After generations of human feeding, would the second group of chickadees know how or where to search for natural foods sources? Could these feeder-dependent birds survive a typical winter without succumbing to the elements?

In our next article, we will answer these and many more questions regarding wild bird dependency on backyard bird feeders. In the meantime, enjoy the extraordinary sights that birders are experiencing this winter season. It is probably the best in over a decade.

Wild Bird Depot is located on Rt 11 in Gilford, NH. Steve White is a contributing author in major publications, a guest lecturer at major conventions in Atlanta and St. Louis as well as the host of WEZS 1350AM radio show “Bird Calls” with Lakes Region Newsday @ 8:30AM. Wild Bird Depot has donated over $5,000 to local rehabilitators and local nature centers since 1996. Be sure to check out our blog “Bird Droppings” via our website Like us on Facebook for great contests and prizes.