SCOTT SHALAWAY In defense of feeding birds

A Dec. 27 front page story on feeding backyard birds in the Wall Street Journal, normally a bastion of journalistic excellence, failed on three counts. The headline writer clearly created the misconception that feeding birds is bad for them. The reporter wandered widely in search of a story on the economics of feeding wild birds. And the graphic artist who illustrated the piece did so with a photo of a European goldfinch.
Ah, where to begin? Let's start with the artist. Why use an Old World species to illustrate a story on North American birds? My guess is inexperience or ignorance. To a graphic artist, a goldfinch is a goldfinch. To a birder, confusing an American goldfinch with a European goldfinch would be akin to confusing a quarterback with a cornerback, or a Ford with a Chevy.
The headlines on the article seem intentionally misleading. They read: "Crying Fowl; Feeding Wild Birds May Harm Them And Environment; It Lures Pests, Causes Illnesses; Changing the Relationship Between Man and Nature; A Booming Business in Seeds." When the story jumps to an inside page, that headline reads, "Backyard Bird Feeders May Also Cause Harm." That's a mouthful of headlines. But the message is clear and intentional -- feeding birds is bad. I don't see how anyone could read those words and not get that impression. So everyone who skimmed the headlines, but skipped the story took away a negative impression about feeding birds.
About the story
Reporter James Sterba began by noting that according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2001 Americans spent $2.6 billion on wild bird seed. He pointed out that more Americans feed birds (52.8 million) than hunt (13 million) or fish (34.1 million).
He quoted wildlife damage control workers who say that backyard bird feeders are great for their business -- bird seed attracts squirrels, raccoons, skunks, and even bears. He reported that feeders concentrate birds and make them susceptible to disease, predators, and window kills. And he wrote that, "Some wildlife biologists worry that backyard bird feeders may be creating populations of dependent wintering birds." Only later does he add that, ".. the few studies done in these areas suggest that such worries are unwarranted." (I sure wish he had named those wildlife biologists.)
The tone of the entire article troubles me. I've been feeding and studying backyard birds for more than 25 years. Through this column, seminars, and my radio shows, I encourage others to do the same. I promote the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch, a citizen science program that is the source of much of what we know about feeding birds all across the continent. Feeding wild birds connects us directly with nature and fosters a land ethic. It's an inexpensive educational pastime, and its appeal narrows and crosses generation gaps.
Readers assured
A book spawned by Project FeederWatch and based on field research, "Birds at Your Feeder" (1999) by Erica Dunn and Diane Tessaglia-Hymes, assures readers that, "...feeders do not draw birds into an environment that is more dangerous than the one they face in the wild," and "you can continue to feed birds with a clear conscience. All current evidence suggests you are not unduly upsetting natural ecological systems."
The Wall Street Journal is read by millions. Its credibility is rarely questioned. But I know birds, and Sterba's article created some strong false impressions. Just keep a few biological facts in mind.
Seed-eating birds visit many patches of food each day because they are highly mobile. They fly. When one patch of food in nature is consumed, they find others. Feeders are simply great food patches.
During severe winter weather, supplemental foods help birds survive.
Diseases spread wherever birds gather, whether it's at natural food patches or backyard feeders. Maintaining a tidy feeding area virtually eliminates this problem.
And yes, hawks come to bird feeders; seeds attract their prey. But the interaction of predator and prey in the backyard is unusual, and for me, one of the highlights of a feeding station.
So, beyond this column, don't believe everything you read. Even if it's in the Wall Street Journal.

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