How people who feed birds observe and protect them

feed birds
Evening Grosbeaks at a backyard feeder in Michigan. Photo by Joan Wiitanen

Researchers at Virginia Tech surveyed more than 1,100 participants in Project FeederWatch, the popular winter bird-feeding program managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and found that most people noticed changes in their backyards that could be due to feeding, including an increase in the number of birds at their feeders, a cat or hawk near their feeders, or a sick bird at their feeders.

Researchers Ashley Dayer and Dana Hawley published their findings in People and Nature, a new journal published by the British Ecological Society.

More than 80 percent of survey respondents say they scare off cats when they see them at their feeders. Smaller percentages of people move their feeders or provide shelter for birds. When observing sick birds, most people cleaned their feeders. When observing more birds, people often responded by providing more food. Fewer people acted in response to seeing hawks; the most common response to this was providing shelter for the feeder birds.

These human responses were, in some cases, tied to peoples’ emotions about their observations, particularly anger. While cats near feeders most commonly evoked anger, sick birds led to sadness or worry. Emotions in response to hawks were more varied.

“Feeding wild birds is a deceptively commonplace activity. Yet, it is one of the most intimate, private, and potentially profound forms of human interaction with nature,” said Darryl Jones, a professor at the Environmental Futures Research Institute and School of Environment and Sciences at Griffith University in Australia, who was not connected to the study. “This perceptive study uncovers some of the remarkable depth associated with bird feeding and discerns that people who feed birds are alert to a wide range of additional natural phenomena.”

One surprising result that the researchers found in this study was that when deciding how much to feed birds, people prioritized natural factors, such as cold weather, more than time and money. Most people believed that the effects of their feeding on wild birds was primarily good for birds, even though many observed and took action in response to natural events in their backyard that could impact the health of the birds and might partly result from their feeding.

“Overall, our results suggest that people who feed birds observe aspects of nature and respond in ways that may affect outcomes of feeding on wild birds. More work is needed to fully understand the positive and negative effects of feeding on wild birds and, thereby, the people who feed them,” said Dayer, whose research focuses on the human dimensions of wildlife conservation, applying social science to understand human behavior related to wildlife.

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