Do birds become dependent on feeders? (Here’s what science says)

“Will birds become dependent on my bird feeders?”

do birds become dependent on 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.

Study #1:

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.

do birds become dependent on bird feeders?

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!


Study #2:

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. 🙂

dinosaurs turning into birds

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!

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44 Comments

  1. Thank you so much Scott! I have had my feeders for 30 years. My finances and health declined suddenly and I had to stop feeding my birds. My birds would come to me in the back yard and turn their heads sideways, and in my mind, they were looking at me and saying please come fill our feeders. I really miss them and the routine of feeding them. You made me feel better.

  2. Thanks, Scott for providing research on whether having bird feeders creates a harmful dependency.
    It’s good to know that birds will move on and find food sources that are available (if a feeder is gone or removed or untended). I enjoy trying to help our fellow animal friends,
    Steve

  3. Thanks! Love your posts and this one was especially helpful – thank you for including direct links to the published research studies as well!

  4. I live in a mobile home park on the edge of a large pond and would love to hang a bird feeder but was told it would attract rats/rodents..could this be a problem?

  5. Most birds have seasonal food sources. They wait to have their chicks until the springs brings billions of insects for food. By late spring berries are abundant.
    Seeds and nuts come by late summer and last Until spring.

    Of course most eat insects all year long until frosts and snow making feeding birds a good way to control diseases that insects bring.

  6. Oh, thank you so much, Scott!! I have worried that giving 4 Cups Black Oil Sunflower Seeds a week might have made our wild birds dependent, and even scheduled someone to come by and feed them on the patio like I usually do while we’re on vacation, because I heard that snow would start falling a few days after we left, and I didn’t want the Mourning Doves especially to die. The sparrows and finches seem more self-sufficient than doves. So now, I know that I’m not as important as I thought I was to their survival, LOL. Kind of a relief, really.

  7. Thanks! I was just wondering about that today. The mourning dove population increased so much at my mini feeder I had to hold back because my apartment complex doesn’t want attracting rodents etc. They also were being like a bully to some of the finches and smaller birds. Your article really helped.

  8. Good to know. I often wonder if the birds will return to my feeders after they were empty during a vacation.

    Spotted my first pair of eagles on Thursday January 11th of this year.

  9. What about hummingbird feeders? We’ve been told (local trail and nature group) that flight range if we feed hummingbirds through the winter we should not interrupt the routine, especially in colder weather. They’ll use more of thier limited resources find a new source.

  10. Thank you for this post. My question is what about winter months. Many morning doves and others come to my feeding area. I am concerned about how can they eat when there is snow? Your thoughts?

    Also, I am going to stop putting down ground seed in the spring. My feeding area is close to my windows and sliding glass door so some have hit the glass when spooked by something. Will just have the hanging feeder then for the little ones. I really appreciate your posts. Thank you

  11. Whether or not birds become dependent on feeders is debatable. Scientific study is limited on how varied their diets are with a combination of seed offered at feeders along with natural sources. Backyard birding is a 5 billion dollar a year industry in the US, so this “issue” of whether or not wild birds are dependent on feeders is brought up on occasion in my opinion to reassure people that feed backyard birds that they are doing the right thing by them. So, by all means keep buying seed and feeders to keep sustaining the 5 billion dollar a year industry. On the opposite end of the thought spectrum, IT HAS been proven through extensive scientific study over the years, and especially in the last few years that bird feeders are vectors for the spread of many avian diseases that result in mortality rates in the thousands for backyard birds every year. But, the backyard birding industry never addresses this, and backyard birders may care even less. The vast majority of bird feeders on the market have all kinds of surface area where bacteria-laced droppings can accumulate on in between feeders cleanings that are also surfaces backyard birds will perch on, directly exposing them to the droppings and the harmful bacteria they can contain, especially salmonella. Salmonellosis spreads like wildfire in backyard birds as it is easily transmissible from bird to bird.

  12. Great article! Thanks for that information. It’s just reassures me but I never really thought that they were totally dependent on feeders. They’re a lot smarter than humans are! As are so many animals in the animal kingdom!