Helping backyard birds thrive can improve your own life, too.
Why get a bird feeder?
The giant flock of pigeons that scatter when you approach them on the sidewalk might not seem like they need your help, but bird populations across North America are struggling.
In September 2019, researchers reported that the continent had lost nearly 3 billion birds over just 50 years. Habitat loss, climate change, unregulated harvest, and other human activities have all contributed to a rise in global extinction rates — and to a major disruption of ecosystems.
But you can take action to improve the health of your own backyard ecosystem — and benefit your own health at the same time.
Turns out that what is good for birds is good for the rest of your backyard. And waking up to the happy sound of chirping birds might just put a little spring in your step, too.
More than 65 million Americans feed the birds around them, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service reports.
You can take action by setting up your own bird feeder. But choosing the right kind of bird feeder depends on where you live. The National Wildlife Federation suggests one of the following:
- Hopper feeder: The classic bird house style, which has a platform for birds to perch upon and walls surrounding the bird seed.
- Tube feeder: Seeds are stored in a refillable tube with holes and perches along the outside (finches love this one, apparently).
- Platform feeder: A flat feeder, either on the ground or raised on a pole, for birds to gather around.
- Window feeder: Secured to your window, usually by suction cup (this one might come in handy if you live in an apartment and don’t have backyard space).
- Suet feeder: This cage-like feeder holds the balls of suet, or fat, that some birds crave.
- Nectar feeder: Great for hummingbirds, this one contains the sweet liquid that mimics the flowers the tiny flappers love.
And no matter your feeder style, research reveals at least three unexpected benefits to feeding birds:
Deepen your connection to nature
Wherever you live, feeding birds can make you feel more connected to the natural environment. And it’s a habit-forming practice that can lead you to learning more about your feathered neighbors.
“Once you get started, it's hard to stop,” the US FWS website says. “Before you know it, you're learning bird names.” Next, you’ll begin to recognize birds on the spot — and begin to understand the messages birds send with their songs and behavior.
Closeness with nature brings a host of health benefits, studies show. Being outside can boost immune systems, lower blood pressure, improve your concentration and mood, and generally make you happier, as Inverse reported in 2016. For children, the effect may be even stronger: Growing up in nature appears to be linked to better mental health in the long term, research suggests.
Feeding local birds can help them stay healthy, according to a study published Monday in the Journal of Applied Biology. When bluebirds’ food was supplemented by bird feeders, they had 75 percent fewer parasites, the researchers found. Specifically, the birds were better able to avoid parasitic flies, which show up in many bird species’ nests and can hinder baby birds’ survival.
The way the flies get into the bluebirds is pretty gnarly. Fly larvae feed on nestlings by boring through the birds’ skin. They can then suck up enough blood to do some serious damage. Birds who were fed by humans have a higher survival rate and lower loss of blood than those who weren’t, researchers discovered.
"If food availability is driving the nestlings' immune response to parasites, feeding early could really help the birds," said lead author Sarah Knutie, an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, in a statement.
Your garden will grow better
Birds make your garden healthier in several ways. They eat insects, help with pollination, and even chomp up your tiny weeds, reports Melissa Mayntz for The Spruce. With fewer insects eating away at your glorious leaves, and less competition from weeds, your flowers and herbs can thrive when you have more birds hanging around.
A 2011 study found that, on farmland, birds were lured to the fields by the weeds that grew among the barley, oats, and wheat the researchers thought they would have been more attracted to. The results suggest that birds play an unsung role in biodiversity and farmland conservation, the researchers said. If the birds keep weeds at bay, that may be a reason to cut pesticide use, they include.
Back in your backyard, the same may be true — birds could help you avoid using chemicals like pesticides to keep things blooming.
Before you get started…
Feeding wildlife — as beneficial as it may be — also has its limits. It changes how animals behave, which can throw off nature’s balance and even lead to increased pathogens, according to a 2015 study. That’s because feeding animals changes the dynamics of infectious diseases, and can “create opportunities for cross‐species transmission,” the study shows. For instance, gathering lots of different animals in one place may lead to more diseases freely moving among them.
But better nutrition can improve immunity to some of these pathogens, offsetting the negative effects, the study found. In the case of the bluebirds, for example, feeding seems to be key to helping them avoid parasites.
So go ahead and feed birds — but do it carefully, bird conservation organization Audubon says. The organization’s website offers some guidelines:
- A few times a year, you should clean your bird feeder with a diluted (about 10 percent) bleach solution.
- Research the birds you want to attract to your feeder. That means learning what foods they prefer, the style of feeder they’re most likely to visit, and where you should hang your feeder for the best results. (Audubon has an awesome guide to the different types of bird seed to consider.)
- Be prepared to clean up bird poop in your backyard. What goes in one end will come out the other, so do not be surprised if you end up with a messy feeder platform. Keep the area as clean as you can, both for your health and safety and for the ground-feeding birds that do not want to deal with that mess any more than you do.
- Bird feeding is particularly helpful as winter turns to spring, and migrating species are returning to colder climates. So plan ahead to make sure you are ready to lend a hand (or wing?) when it’s needed the most.
Beyond getting a feeder, the website 3 Billion Birds suggests other ways you can make life better for your backyard birds — like installing window screens, planting native species, and buying bird-friendly coffee.
Environmentally friendly practices, like avoiding pesticides and curbing plastic use, can also make a difference for birds, as well as the many other creatures you might find in your backyard. And that certainly includes humans.