Wild birds don’t need your feeders to survive
More than 50 million people in the United States provide food for birds, whether they throw pieces of duck bread or erect shiny feeders in their backyards. In fact, American consumers spend more than $ 4 billion a year on bird food, feeders, and other bird feeding accessories.
But providing delicious bites for our neighborhood tweeters can have its downsides. Research has shown that intentionally feeding our feathered friends facilitates disease transmission, improves competition, and even hinders reproduction. However, a study published last month in the Journal of Avian Biology found no evidence that birds become addicted to our tasty chips.
“If birds become dependent on humans for food and we stop feeding them, they may not be able to support themselves without our help,” said Jim Rivers, lead author of the study and associate professor of ecology of wildlife at Oregon State University. .
To reach this conclusion, the researchers observed 67 wild tits from fall 2016 to early spring 2017 near the Oregon State University campus. Rivers chose these little songbirds because they typically frequent bird feeders during the cooler months.
The tits were captured and tagged with electromagnetic trackers and underwent one of three flight feather treatments: a control group, a group with a “light cut” of two primary flight feathers and a “heavy cut” of four feathers. flight.
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“We have very little information on whether birds that need more food, such as during winter storms, might increase their dependence on bird feeders. We can’t control the winter weather, but we can use techniques, like flipping the feathers, which might offer clues to other times when energy expenditure is high, ”says Rivers.
Each tit has nine flight feathers, and when they are cut off at the base, flight becomes more difficult. To keep floating, cut birdies need more energy and therefore more food. These feathers grow back, so the following season the chickadees were able to fly normally.
Bird-loving biologists predicted that cut and hungrier chicks would need more food and munch on one of the 21 bird feeders set up in their woodland habitat more frequently, especially since foraging in winter is already cumbersome. However, what they found surprised them.
Instead of hanging around the feeders longer, the hobbled whistlers actually reduced their use of the artificial sunflower feeders during the first two weeks of winter weather. However, the visit rates eventually returned and by week three all tits, cut and uncut, were using the same amount from the dispenser.
While researchers aren’t sure why this happened, one possible explanation is that the trimmed birds had to adapt to their new flight pattern before returning to graze in the feeders which often make them more vulnerable to predators. The tits are also hiding food for later and could have munched on stored snacks. Finally, flying to the feeders may have been too exhausting to be justified.
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Either way, the study indicates that even the most hungry birds do not appear to become dependent on seeds and human-supplied snacks. This reaffirms the only other published study on the subject, published in 1992. Decade-old work tested survival rates among chickadees after feeders of 25-year-old birds were removed from their posts in Wisconsin, and perhaps not surprisingly, the birds carried on very well without the treats.
“We were able to answer an old question with limited research behind it in a new way,” says Rivers. “A next step would be to test our method with other species in other regions, especially regions with particularly cold winters, and to assess whether birds behave the same in a different environment. ”
More studies need to be done to determine the extent to which bird feeders are impacting and changing the behaviors of wild birds. But the more we know about our local flying friends, the more we can do to protect them in the future.