• J. Woken

Feeding Songbirds

I put up a new bird feeder a couple weeks ago. It’s an Infinity Feeder, which is designed to visually indicate when the feed is low and needs refilling. I love it. The indicator is really handy and the feeder overall is an attractive yard decoration. The problem is the birds love it, too. So much so that they empty 5 pounds of seed almost every day. I have decided to refill it only once a week, lest we go broke and the birds themselves grow too dependent on store-bought seed.

The winter weather at my childhood home in Southern California was rarely perilous for wild birds, yet we still maintained a feeder for our feathered friends to enjoy throughout the year. Unfortunately, unlike here in Minnesota, our feeder was overwhelmed with common house sparrows, which my bird-loving dad [lovingly] called “welfare birds”. It sounds harsh, but he wasn’t (isn’t?) the only one concerned about the dependency of some avian species on human handouts. A columnist from Idaho State Journal quipped about the unintentional “welfare state” he’d created in his own backyard. The column wasn’t about birds per se, but it does bring to light the real issue of birdseed dependency, and can help us to better understand what, and how, we should be feeding wild birds to benefit them, and us, the most.

It’s no joke: Birdseed dependency is a real conundrum. Of course we want to assure wild birds are fed whether seasonally or year-round, but even avian enthusiasts debate the issue of “to feed or not to feed”. I’ve discovered that the issue is so complex some experts even contradict themselves. This article from The Spruce says that feeding birds does not make them dependent and “birds will not starve if the feeders aren’t filled”, yet also claims that bird parents rely on feeders in order to feed their growing young so ‘don’t stop feeding them in the summer’. Huh? Confusing, indeed. Another article from Birds&Blooms suggests filling a feeder “in moderation” and stopping use of a bird feeder gradually, both suggestions allude to the fact that there is a degree of dependence on bird feeders within wild bird populations, even if they do “quickly adapt to changes in the supply.”

Bird feeders used in excess are seen by some as the avian equivalent of giving a man a fish instead of teaching him how to fish (side note: That’s a Chinese proverb, not a Biblical one). House sparrows really are “welfare birds”, that is they’re highly dependent on giveaways and only take-take-take without contributing much to the nature in which they thrive. In fact, like the Asian Lady Bird Beetle, house sparrows are invasive and extremely aggressive toward other native species, sometimes killing off competitors like the beloved bluebird and cardinal. In the U.S., it’s legal to kill house sparrows. But, I digress.

This Local Wild is less about the ethics of bird feeders and answering the “feed or not to feed” question than how we bird-loving (“local wild”-loving!) citizens might go about it better. That is, more sustainably, more affordably, and better for everyone involved, whether human or bird.

The ideal and more sustainable approach to feeding wild birds is by planting trees, shrubs, and vines that provide natural sources of food, like berries, seeds, and bugs, for birds year-round, year after year.

Providing pounds upon pounds of dry, ready-to-eat seed on demand is a nice gesture, but is more akin to a temporary supplement plan instead of a long-term feeding solution. The ideal and more sustainable approach to feeding wild birds is by planting trees, shrubs, and vines that provide natural sources of food, like berries, seeds, and bugs, for birds year-round, year after year. The Saint Paul Audubon Society published a “Go Native” booklet, a guide “to sustain songbirds and other wildlife in your garden” year-round by focusing on plants that provide critical dietary protein (insects) to songbirds. According to the booklet, “even [landscapes] with many bird feeders, offer little to sustain birds [because] 96 percent of songbirds raise their young by stuffing them with high-protein insects and spiders.” In short: Birds need protein and fats (bugs and oil-based seeds), not carbs (grain-based seeds). Examples of native plants that offer up berries and insects to our songbirds include Minnesota native plants like Hackberry, Chokecherry, Wild Plum, High-bush Cranberry, and the festive Winterberry.

Winter Berry is of special interest to me this time of year, because it so closely resembles the bright red holly berry used in Christmas art and decor. It’s also a waterwise and pollinator-friendly plant! To improve our beloved pollinator population and habitat for our state bee, the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee, the statewide Blue Thumb—Planting for Clean Water® partnership has begun the “Lawns to Legumes” program. And it’s now accepting applications! According to the website, “All Minnesota residents are eligible to apply for a $350 cost-share in order to establish pollinator habitat in their yards.” Most of Cannon Falls lies within the program’s Priority 2 area. For more information on Lawns to Legumes and to apply, visit