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!