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The Hairy Woodpecker

Birding Business September 2014-When to Stop Feeding

When to Stop Feeding

BY HANK WEBER | Contributing Editor

Common Misconceptions


Before responding to the customer I attempt to identify which misconception they are concerned with.  That way I can tailor my answer to their specific concern.

Common Misconception No. 1.
In spring, customers cite several reasons why they are thinking about no longer feeding birds.  One common belief is that with the advent of warmer weather there will soon be lots of bugs and insects around for the birds to eat.  So if they stop feeding their birds will continue to be well fed and happy and will also eliminate all the unwanted pesky bugs in their backyard.  To counter this misconception, I explain that, in general, backyard birds fall into two distinct groups – those that eat seed and those that eat bugs (or worms, or fruit or nectar).  And birds usually do not change their food preferences.  Seed eating birds do not suddenly develop an overwhelming taste for bugs.  They don’t become bug eaters, nor do insect eating birds such as robins switch to seeds.  So don’t count on your favorite seed eating birds to eliminate your backyard bugs.

If a customer is truly determined to stop feeding in spring, I encourage them to continue feeding at least through the end of June.  Spring is such a difficult time for backyard birds.  They are trying to attract a mate, while at the same time defending a territory from intruders.  Next they have to build a nest, followed by many young mouths to feed.  There is much to keep them busy.  However, not many of the year’s plants have gone to seed yet, so birds are dependent on finding the remains of last year’s seed crop.  And, of course, in this stressful period a bird feeder can be very helpful for a quick bite and a reliable source of food.

I also suggest that, if they have not been offering suet, they may want to consider it during the nesting season.  Like baby food, suet is ideal for growing youngsters.  It is soft, easy to digest and high in energy.  It is a quick, easy meal for harried parents to feed their always hungry youngster.

As a final inducement to continuing feeding in summer I always mention how heartwarming it is to watch the parents bring their newly fledged youngsters to your feeder for their first meals.  For most of their short life youngsters begged for food and parents fed them.  Once they have fledged they continue to beg but the parents ignore them pointing to the delicious food always available at your feeder.  You can almost hear them say “help yourself”.

Misconception No. 2
Although it is less common than in the spring, a customer occasionally wants to know when to stop feeding in fall.  They worry that if they don’t stop, the birds may linger too long in their backyard, miss the migration season and be trapped by winter weather.

To counter this concern, I point out that the birds that migrate south in the colder months tend to be bug eating birds who migrate primarily because they can’t find their favorite food in winter.  The birds at your feeder, however, are generally seed eating birds.  They can find seed all year round, even in winter.  So don’t be concerned that they may miss migration.  Many of them do not migrate.

Misconception No. 3
Another misconception sometimes cited as a reason to stop feeding is to prevent birds from becoming overly dependent on your feeder and losing the ability to forage for food on their own.   They feel birds need to be able to find their own food.  In a similar way some customers express concern if they are going on a long vacation.  They worry their feeders will run empty and their birds will starve.

It may seem that the ravenous birds feed exclusively at your feeder.  However, that isn’t the case.  Ornithologists studying the feeding patterns of chickadees discovered that the chickadees only got 30-35% of their daily food intake at a bird feeder.  The majority of their food was found naturally.  On the few days with a major winter storm, the chickadees relied more on the seed in the feeder.  But even then they were not totally dependent on it.

So if you are lucky enough to be spending multiple weeks at some lovely warm resort, don’t worry about your birds.  They will be fine.  After all, I remind them, the birds were doing well before you decided to feed them.  And they will continue to do well if you stop.

Misconception No. 4
Occasionally a customer will ask, with the change of seasons, whether they should change to a different type of seed to put in their feeder.  Is there one seed better for winter and a different one for summer?

Variety may be the spice of life for humans.  But birds really don’t care.  Most birds would be happy eating sunflower seed every day of its life.  There is no reason to switch seed types.  Of course, if you really want to vary the diet or give your birds a special a treat you might add some nuts, berries, or other seeds to their regular fair.  The birds won’t object.  But it isn’t necessary.

So, when should you stop feeding?  My answer is: Never!