Do birds become dependent on feeders? (Here’s what science says)
“Will birds become dependent on my bird feeders?”
The above question is one that I get often. And honestly, I completely understand why it’s a concern for many people.
On the surface, it feels like feeding birds is a good thing, right? We put food in our feeders, assuming that the extra nutrition will help them survive cold winters, intense breeding seasons, or competition from invasive species.
But what if we are wrong, and feeding birds can cause more harm than good?
In particular, if our avian friends became dependent on our bird feeders, that would be a very bad thing. That means that if we ever stopped feeding them, they would struggle to find food on their own and eventually suffer and die.
And as someone who actively promotes the hobby of bird feeding, I would be personally responsible for the death of A LOT of birds.
So, as you can see, I wanted to answer the “do birds become dependent on feeders” question once and for all.
And luckily, the science is clear:
Birds DO NOT become dependent on bird feeders.
Let’s dive into the research below.
Jim Rivers, an animal ecologist with the Oregon State University College of Forestry, released a study in the Journal of Avian Biology that looked directly at whether Black-capped Chickadees become dependent on food provided by humans.
The study took a unique approach to test their hypothesis. Rivers observed the feeder use of 67 chickadees, divided into three groups. The first group had their primary flight feathers heavily clipped, the second group had them lightly clipped, while the control group’s wings were not clipped at all. Clipping the wings alters the wing load and increases the energy needs for the bird.
If birds depended on bird feeders, the scientists thought the handicapped chickadees would increase their daily visits to feeders to compensate for their increased energy needs.
But something surprising happened.
The chickadees with clipped wings actually DECREASED their visits to bird feeders. Instead, they relied more on naturally available foods like invertebrates, berries, and other seeds. Then, as the flight feathers grew back, they started visiting bird feeders like normal again. (On a side note, it’s thought the chickadees didn’t visit feeders as much because they were worried about predation with their decreased flying ability.)
Rivers himself concluded, “It’s clear that the chickadees in our study did not increase their visitation rates nor did they increase their reliance on supplemental feed during a period when they might have benefited from it the most.” Read the entire research paper here!
The next research was done by Margaret Brittingham and Stanley Temple of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. They looked directly at what happens to Black-capped Chickadees when feeders are taken away from them.
Here’s what the researchers did:
They studied two different populations of chickadees during winter. The first group had access to a bird feeder. The second group did not have a feeder and relied solely on natural foods.
To test feeder dependency, the researchers REMOVED the bird feeder, which had been there for 25 years. As a result, these chickadees now had to suddenly switch to only eating what they could find naturally.
Would the chickadees waste too much time looking for the bird feeder? Did they forget how to find natural food sources, like invertebrates, berries, and other seeds?
The answer is a resounding NO!
The researchers found that both groups of chickadees survived well, with no differences in survival rate between the two groups. The chickadees that had access to a bird feeder had no problems when it was removed. Read the entire study HERE!
My thoughts on bird feeder dependency:
In my opinion, thinking that birds become dependent on feeders doesn’t give birds enough credit!
Feeding birds has only gained popularity for the past 50 years or so. In the grand scheme of things, bird feeding is a relatively new hobby.
On the other hand, birds have adapted and evolved over MILLIONS of years. Let’s remember that birds evolved from dinosaurs. I don’t know this for sure, but I’m pretty sure a T-rex would never become dependent on a single food source. 🙂
Do we really think that setting out a little bit of food is going to erase a bird’s instinct to survive?
Putting it like this, it makes me feel arrogant for even asking the question and doesn’t give birds the respect they deserve.
Disappearing food sources are a constant thing in the life of any bird. Whether it’s a tree producing seeds for a few weeks, a fruit tree that has just started to ripen, or an insect species that only matures at a particular time of year, they have no problems moving from one food source to another.
In our minds, we know that the bird feeder we set up is a permanent source of food. But to the birds, they have no idea that it’s going to be there tomorrow. They show up, find your seeds, and satisfy their energy requirements for the day.
But the second there is no food at the feeders, they will start searching and foraging elsewhere. No problems at all for the birds!
So quit worrying that feeding birds will make them dependent on your help.
Luckily, we are just not that important to them. 🙂
Let me know what you think below!
We live where there are lots of Bears and other predators in the Spring and Summer Months, so we have to stop feeding the Birds during the warm weather. Bears come out of Hibernation in the Spring and are very hungrey, and the first thing they will go after is the bird feeders containing Seeds, Suet, Nuts and other goodies we choose to put out for our little friends. we stop feeding at that time to avoid bring a dangerious animal in the yard witch can eat your other pets and the Mail Man 🙂 the other factor they don’t make a bear proof feeder and replacing all the hand made feeders and others we put out gets very expsensive and that will take the fun out of it. the birds have p lenty of food in the spring, summer and right through the following Hibernation period period. They will come back when the feeders go back, at leastmine have for the last sixty years. So relax and enjoy the time we can have with them.
Thanks Scott for the great articles.
I live in upstate NY and feed the birds year round. Obviously, the frequency of my feathered visitors varies with the weather and change of seasons. Very soon my husband and I will travel south for an extended time and I’ve been feeling concerned that my feeders and suet baskets won’t get filled until April. So many kinds of birds are frequent visitors; this winter alone has brought cardinal, blue jay, titmouse, chickadee, junco, nuthatch, sparrow, finch, and several woodpecker varieties. Bird lovers, can I be fairly sure my feathered friends will find alternate food sources during some of winter’s harshest weeks? I’ve read the accompanying article but it seems cruel to discontinue feeding mid-season. I’m wondering if I should hire someone to come and fill my feeders! Your opinions are welcome!
I live in a high desert area and have been putting some seed out once a day for the several kinds of birds we have here, and for the quail. At first only a single covey of quail shared the seed with the others, but over time more and more quail discovered it until there were at least 3 coveys of quail coming for the seed, over 60 birds! Recently 2 coveys left and no longer come, and it is January. Perhaps they decided there was not enough seed for all of them and too much competition as I never increased the amount of seed I put out. It was just supplemental anyway and certainly not enough to be full on. So I know they are able to find food elsewhere and be ok. They might come back, it has happened before, that after a couple of weeks all of a sudden there are so many again. Also the different species of songbirds come for a while and then go. The sparrows stayed longer last year than the year before and I was guessing it was because I was putting seed out.
As for the hummingbirds, we have Anna’s hummngbirds that stay year round. Not very many and they seldom drink from the feeders, but this month in the space of a week they just about drained the feeders for the first time. I’m sure they would be fine somehow if the feeders were gone but it’s obvious it’s helping them out this month.
The squirrels I think would have to move on if I stopped putting walnuts and birdseed out. We have been experiencing drought and maybe they eat acorns from the mast year of 2 years ago since there were no acorns last year or this. This year very few pine cones. I don’t know what else they find.
I’m comforted knowing the birds and squirrels would be ok if I stopped, but I still wonder sometimes.
I live in Keswick On. on Lake Simcoe North of Toronto/ I have found the same thing ,if I don’t put my feeders out by the end of October the birds move on and find food elsewhere. When I put my feeders out which I always do now by Halloween I have chickadees , nuthatches, cardinals , jays , mourning doves , junco’s , woodpeckers and sparrows all winter long. I just think once you start feeding them for the winter its only right to feed them through to spring. The joy of seeing them everyday is well worth it.
I too would like to hear about more varieties of birds. I do know I was relieved that the disease that struck the midwest this past summer occurred in summer. I felt terrible that birds could no longer find my feeders. Anne–I would wonder if that means Carolina Wrens have moved farther north for some reason as well (climate change? I know sharks have). I cannot imagine why evolution would lead an animal to live where the cold kills it.
Birds and small animals need all the help when the weather goes bad. In summer or winter. Food and water can help
save many little lives.
I’m also interested in this question, as I had been told that hummingbirds do suffer if feeders are removed. I hope the answer is the same as for the chickadees in the studies!
Can the same be said for hummingbirds?
I have been concerned that when I move in 6 months that they’ll not be getting enough food when I’m gone.
So I feel like they don’t depend on me to feed them when it’s nice enough for them to forage in the wild.
I am in north central Nebraska, we have been having a mild winter and I am waiting for the gold finches to come back to feeders, I usually have 50 to 60 in the past 3 years.
We are in the Montreal area of Quebec which gets really cold in the winter and we feed the birds from the end of October to the end of April or mid-May. I’m sure that if the feeder was not reinstated in October that the birds would be ok as they would have been used it not being there for a while. Given how cold it can be, I find that the feeder can be very busy during those times.
Happily surprised…but what about Cardinals, lol.
Your article is comforting, however, I recently read that Carolina Wrens in the Northeast were dependent on feeders during extreme cold weather snaps that decimated populations. I am interested in your thoughts on this. I have recently been seeing a pair of Carolina Wrens at my sunflower seed feeders and at my suet feeder.