Wild Side: Start small

Bird feeding could begin your relationship with the natural world.

Local chickadees and tufted titmice keep busy at this feeder hung inside a holly tree. —Susan Safford

It’s the time of year when I receive many inquiries about feeding wild birds: Is it ecologically helpful or harmful? Should I feed birds, or not? In classic “Wild Side” fashion, I always respond with resounding, definitive “maybe.”

Because it’s a popular activity, and because it’s easy to study relative to most other bird-related questions, bird feeding has been rather well researched. You can readily find a ton of information by searching the web. But briefly, here’s an overview of some of the issues.

First, from the birds’ perspective, feeding creates both advantages and risks. On the plus side, access to any reliable food source, especially during the winter, really does help individual birds survive. (Whether this matters on the scale of regional bird populations is much less clear.) On the minus side, feeding stations can be mechanisms of disease transmission among birds, especially if feeders are not kept clean. And by lingering around feeders, birds may make themselves more vulnerable to predation.

On the human side, it’s rewarding to observe birds up close at feeding stations, and many people derive satisfaction from doing something that wild animals appreciate. But feeding also entails expense, effort, and even an element of stress as you feel the need to expand your offerings or to avoid missing a day of feeding.

And in terms of unintended consequences, bird feeding usually subsidizes non-avian species that most of us would prefer not to encourage: Skunks, deer, and rats are among the unpopular mammals that eat from feeders or feed on spilled seed at feeding stations.

I fed birds for years, mostly just spreading seed on the ground for sparrows. Across many winters, this regularly attracted a cast of a couple dozen individual birds of several species. On several occasions, I was treated to a fox sparrow (regular but uncommon on the Vineyard), and on one memorable day, I saw a clay-colored sparrow (even more uncommon). But I eventually stopped the practice, figuring I was probably feeding as many rats as birds.

This winter, amid pandemic gloom and political turmoil, I felt the need to add something positive to my daily life. So I began a very targeted feeding campaign, putting small quantities of shelled sunflower seeds out on our porch railing. This is high-quality food, producing no debris and almost no waste. A pair of blue jays now shows up every morning, yelling for their daily subsidy; a family group of chickadees shows up most days, as well, flitting about the backyard bushes until I put out a little seed and some fresh water. The bird feed until the small supply of seed is gone, often take some water, and then go on about their business.

The odd cardinal or red-breasted nuthatch sometimes comes in, as well. But basically, with food present only briefly, this resource is available only to the few birds that know about it — the same clients every day. It seems to work for all of us. This method — low-waste, safe for the birds, small in scale — evolved directly from my emotional needs, interests, and values.

Will it work for you? Again, maybe. Consider for a moment the name I chose for this series of columns: “Wild Side,” a metaphor of sorts. Think of a coin. The front and back sides are different designs, totally separate from each other. You can’t even see both sides at once. And yet the coin is clearly a single object, its different sides inseparable, and if you send it tumbling through the air, both sides tumble at once.

So it is, in my view, with the human and natural worlds. These domains are at once radically different and inextricably linked. What affects one affects the other. Yet the two sides operate by different rules, and it’s critical to understand the distinction. My purpose in writing these columns is to explore our relationship with nature, as complex ecological processes take place all around us, sometimes hidden, sometimes visible, but always interwoven with our own, human world.

So I won’t tell you whether or not to feed birds. Figure it out for yourself, based on your values, your interests, your research, and your observations. Think of the decision as a first foray into consciously developing your relationship with the natural world. What do you want that relationship to be like?

Then build on that decision and cultivate the habitat of thinking constantly about the wild side around you, and how you interact with it. What do you enjoy observing? When and where do you feel comfortable intervening? What questions emerge, and how can you answer them? As you learn more about the natural world, you’ll find that more and more decisions have implications for wildlife, or for your relationship with wildlife. Whether or not you opt to do it, just contemplating bird feeding, with its complex mix of risks and rewards, can be a route to a richer connection with the world around us.