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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Do you harm migrating birds by feeding them?

Eastern Phoebe
    About now, some folks put birdfeeders, birdbaths and such away until spring. They've bought into the myth that all the birds leave here just before cool weather, and feeding them interferes with their natural migrations.  That’s simply not so!  Many birds (Chickadees, Cardinals, Woodpeckers, even Robins etc.) stay in the north Texas area all year. Some birds (Martins, most Hummingbirds, Swallows etc.) fly to even warmer climates. Many others migrate TO climates like ours for the winter. The result is that there are at least as many birds here during the winter as there are in the summer. Probably more!
The old myth that feeding birds right before cool weather somehow makes them stay here, just won’t go away. The truth is that the food in your feeders has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with birds’ natural migration schedules. Migration times are governed by day length, sun angles, air temperatures, winds and the bird’s heredity. Migrating birds, often embarking on a flight of hundreds and hundreds of miles (or pausing along the way) will often seek out a “feedered” yard so they can stoke up for the trip. Many uncommon birds are sighted this way.

Still others believe that feeding birds makes them “lazy” and dependant on us. The scientific truth is that wild birds get only about 10 to 20 percent of their total diet from feeders. The vast majority of their food is still berries, seed, insects and other naturally-found stuff. The food in backyard feeders is only an occasional convenience or a snack. In an icestorm or snowstorm, however, a feeder can literally be a lifesaver. And it's also an “instructional tool” for young birds and their parents.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Actually, the period after (roughly) mid-October is when the wild birds probably need our help the most. The natural food is harder and harder to find, but the birds still need to eat every day just to stay alive. They still need to take baths to get clean, too.

What do the experts do? Noted ornithologists Donald & Lillian Stokes say, “birds always need your help. The best time to start feeding them is now…and never stop.” I can’t rank myself among the “experts”, but I feed birds via my 10 (or so) birdfeeders every month of the year - mainly because I enjoy watching them every month of the year. I leave my birdbaths out too, knowing that birds need to fluff up clean feathers to stay warm. (Sure,  the water freezes sometimes but the birds deserve our extra effort.) I also plan to put out nectar for the dark-orange Rufous Hummingbird, which will winter here.

The year-round feeding of wild birds in Texas has contributed to our being able to see several species that used to avoid Texas, such as Towhees, several Warbler species, Nuthatches, Orioles and Vireos. They’re spotted as they rest up along their migration routes. This is perfectly natural “range expansion” that has occurred here over the last 30 years. (Some say that they were here naturally decades ago, but were driven away by their natural feeding areas being turned into shopping centers and subdivisions. So we’re just making amends by feeding them!)

In a recent publication from Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, the author pointed out that “in winter… the berry-laden vegetation has mostly withered or been consumed, and most insects have died or become dormant. Finding food can be especially challenging during cold weather.”  While the winters in north Texas may not be as cold and snowy as most, our birds are certainly impacted by the fact that natural foods and protective shelter are gone.

Whenever you feed the birds, it’s very important to keep feeders clean, preventing the possibility of diseases. Feeders should be cleaned at least twice a year by soaking them in a solution of water and vinegar (or bleach) and thoroughly drying them. Your birds will thank you, and even moreso when you take care of them through a Texas winter.


OWEN YOST, in addition to being a blogger, is a licensed Landscape Architect emeritus who has lived and worked in north Texas for over 30 years. He is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Federation of Landscape Architects, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. His office is at in Denton.

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