Sep 25, 2014 | Featured in: Watching Backyard Birds, October 2014

8 Common Bird-feeding Myths Debunked

Is bird feeding bad or good for the birds? Will they starve if you stop feeding them? Learn more in the article below.
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Have you ever noticed how much of what we consider "conventional wisdom" is actually wrong and ridiculous? Bird-feeding conventional wisdom is riddled with bad information. But you, my friend, are in luck! I have tried most everything in bird feeding at least once, and I have made nearly every mistake possible.

Why? So you won't have to!

Here are some common birdfeeding myths that I will now debunk for you.

Myth #1: Bird feeders keep birds from migrating.

Reality: If this were true, we'd have hummingbirds and orioles clinging to our feeders all winter long. Birds migrate when their natural, "internal clocks" urge them to do so. Migration is driven by instinct and external factors such as hours and intensity of daylight and weather, not by the availability of food at feeders. One thing to note is that birds need extra food during migration, so it's nice to keep your feeders stocked in case a hungry migrant plops down in your yard looking for food.

Myth #2: Bird feeding is really bad/good for birds.

Reality: Let's face it: Birds did just fine before we decided a few hundred years ago to feed them. Birds do not need the food we provide for them. It's a nice compromise between our desire to see birds in our backyards and the birds' willingness to take advantage of our largesse. Birds do not rely solely on our feeders for their survival, and they certainly do not rely on our feeders for necessary nutrients, so it's wrong to say that feeding is "good" for birds. By the same token, when bird feeding is done in a conscientious manner, it is also not bad for birds. Yes, messy feeding stations can harbor disease, and food can sometimes spoil at our feeders, but if these scenarios are avoided, bird feeding is enjoyable for us and attractive to the birds.

Myth #3: Birds will starve if you stop feeding in winter.

Reality: Birds have evolved over the eons as incredibly adaptive, mobile creatures. Unless a bird is sick or debilitated, it can use its wings (or legs) to range far and wide in search of food. Birds that cannot move in search of food are likely doomed to perish anyway, which is part of the natural scheme of things. So when you're going away on vacation for two weeks in the middle of a cold, snowy spell, it's nice if you can arrange for a neighbor to keep your feeders filled. Most serious backyard bird watchers wouldn't think of letting their feeders go empty. But if it happens while you're gone, as has happened to me, realize that your birds will not starve, they will just go somewhere else to find food. When you return, you may have to work to lure them back!

Myth #4: The mixed seed at the grocery store is bad.

Reality: I believed this with all my heart until recently, when I saw some decent mixed birdseed for sale at a fancy grocery store. Granted, the stuff at my local chain grocery store is absolute junk, unfit for rock pigeons. But some seed producers seem to be getting the message that quality seed is worth making. The trick to telling the junk seed from the better stuff is to read the ingredients. Junk seed has almost no black-oilsunflower, peanut bits, safflower, millet, or sunflower hearts. It has lots of milo, wheat, barley, cracked corn, and upon visual inspection, perhaps some empty hulls, sticks, and other inedibles. The best mixes feature a hearty helping of sunflower seed in some form.

Myth #5: Birds won't eat milo.

Reality: Years ago in an early issue of Bird Watcher's Digest, one of our editorial cartoons stated emphatically that "Real birds don't eat milo." Readers in the eastern half of North America nodded in agreement, but folks in the Southwest howled their ridicule and protested loudly. Red milo is a staple of western bird feeding, especially in the Southwest, where a variety of quail, doves, towhees, and sparrows readily eat it. In the east and upper Midwest, birds don't seem to eat milo much at all, so any mixed seed with a large percentage of milo will probably go mostly uneaten.

Myth #6: Blackbirds/squirrels won't eat safflower seed.

Reality: Safflower was once considered by many to be the anti-blackbird and anti-squirrel food. Cardinals seemed to love it, but blackbirds and squirrels did not. That's really not true anymore but nobody knows why. Many folks who feed safflower report that any bird or mammal that eats sunflower will also eat safflower. Safflower seed is still a nice alternative food to offer—it works in any feeder suitable for sunflower seed, and it can be bought in bulk in feed stores. A blackbird and squirrel deterrent it is not, but then again, what is?

Myth #7: Red dye in hummer food is bad.

Reality: We'd like to think we know what is best for the birds we feed, but in a lot of cases, we don't. It certainly seems logical that adding food coloring to hummingbird nectar solution might not be good for the birds drinking it, but the fact is, we don't have any scientific proof to that effect. It's one of those innocent-until-proven-guilty things. And until some scientist does the testing, millions of packages of red-dyed hummingbird nectar will continue to be sold and used. The purpose of the dye is to attract the attention of a passing hummingbird; the truth is that the red or orange parts of hummingbird feeders do a better job of this. So I strongly recommend that you not use red dye in your hummingbird nectar.

Equally bad is the assertion by many of the same companies that produce and sell the prefab nectar that we need to add "nutritional supplements" to the nectar. Hummingbirds do not need our help to have a balanced diet. Between flower nectar and catching small insects, these tiny birds have everything they need, foodwise, to be healthy.

Myth #8: This feeder is 100 percent squirrel-proof!

Reality: I'm sorry, but there's just no way. Here I am setting myself up for angry letters from feeder manufacturers, but it's simply impossible to believe this statement. Oh, yes, you can make a feeder squirrel-proof by placing it in the middle of treeless lawn with a pole-baffle that would do the Pentagon proud. But nail that same feeder to your deck railing, and watch the squirrels remove the confident smile from your face, along with all the seed in your feeder. Squirrels have the drive to be way more resourceful than any bird-feeder designer. Why? Because a squirrel is working to feed itself and perhaps its offspring, and it will throw itself into the task with all its might every single day. The squirrel thinks of nothing else but the seed inside the feeder and how to get at it. That's why the squirrels win every time.

What do you think? Tell us!

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