When I was eight years old, few things were more exciting than birds. This excitement may feel eccentric to certain folks. However I’m not unique in this. In 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that at least 47 million people in the U.S. watch birds, in one form or another. Few of these people probably match the fervor of my 12-year-old-self seeing “life birds” — species I’d never seen before — but I bet many feed birds.
There are likely more people on Capitol Hill who feed birds than identify themselves as birdwatchers. Bird feeding is a $5 billion industry. Inevitably, people on the Hill feed birds. I have been feeding birds most of my adult life. Not only do I get to enjoy feathered friends with morning coffee, but it gives me a sense of who is in the neighborhood, helping me feel less disconnected from the world.
So, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right.
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Bird feeding can be contentious. I’m not talking about feeding ducks white bread at Cal Anderson. I’m talking about supplying wild birds with food at feeders. Some folks think we are altering wild bird behavior, which is valid, but also seems odd in light of our houses, cars, and the resources we consume. Others are justifiably frustrated by the rodents it attracts. I would never say feeding birds is benign, but there are very few things we do in our lives that are absolutely pure. So, let’s talk about feeding birds, and doing it right.
Let’s get this out of the way: bird feeding does not explicitly benefit birds. If we really want to help local birds, we should maintain and revitalize the habitats we have in and around the Hill. Feeding birds is pleasurable and seeing birds up close and personal should be your motive. The bevy of finches, sparrows, woodpeckers, and chickadees that come to my feeder would be fine without my handouts. (There’s evidence that Anna’s Hummingbirds have started wintering in our northerly cline because we feed them, but it’s not clear they entirely are reliant on us)
By feeding birds, we are entering an ethical obligation. If you feed birds, then you need to clean your bird feeder regularly. If you don’t, they get grungy and have the potential to get birds sick. I clean my hummingbird feeder weekly, my seed feeder at least twice a month. I use hot water and soap, because we don’t need more bleach in our waterways, and because it does the job just fine. If you don’t think you can pull this off, maybe you shouldn’t feed birds.
The bulk food source I offer are black-oil sunflower seeds which please a large range of birds and are oily and nutritious (seed mixes with millet are fine, they are just messier). I use suet to attract birds that are more insectivorous year-round, like woodpeckers, wrens, nuthatches, and bushtits. Plenty of people have certain things they offer and this can vary by region, but I like to keep things simple.
To feed hummingbirds, I make my own nectar. I combine 4 parts water with 1 part sugar over the stove, using no food coloring and only white sugar. Food coloring is bad for them, white sugar creates a clear nectar I can monitor for freshness. More sugar wouldn’t be healthy, and less would make their little kidneys work too hard processing the extra water. I store this mixture it in the refrigerator and it keeps about a month. Unless you have a bevy of little hummingbirds, fill your feeder only part of the way. You’ll waste less nectar when you go to clean your feeder regularly. You don’t need a large feeder either. On the Hill, Anna’s Hummingbirds are our main visitor and they only come in small numbers with a resident bird chasing most others off.
Rodents, particularly Eastern gray squirrels, are troublesome. We live in an age of catapulted squirrels on Youtube. I do not approve of such cruel measures. I do approve of feeders that mechanically restrict rodent visitors. In terms of rodents on the ground, you’ll never be completely free of rats, but regular cleaning goes a long way to reduce their interest.
We feed birds because we want to, not because birds need us to. Bird feeding is particularly fun this time of year when breeding is over and species flock up. Golden-crowned Sparrows arrive in my yard from breeding grounds in the North, Fox Sparrows join from their summer homes in Cascadian alpine meadows. Northern Flickers, ever nervous, but come close and often to my suet. Anna’s hummingbirds defend their sugar fearlessly from interlopers. Overall, it’s colder, and they’re hungry. If we do it right, feeding birds is probably fairly low on the scale of eternal sins, and if it makes us happy, or care about birds more, it’s probably imperative.