Study finds people who feed birds impact conservation

Study finds people who feed birds impact conservation
A dark-eyed junco, an American goldfinch, and a house finch feed on sunflower seeds on a snowy day. Bird watchers report that cold weather influences how much they feed birds, more so than time or money. Credit: Cynthia Raught, Virginia Tech

People in many parts of the world feed birds in their backyards, often due to a desire to help wildlife or to connect with nature. In the United States alone, over 57 million households in the feed backyard birds, spending more than $4 billion annually on bird food.

While researchers know that bird feeding can influence nature, they do not know how it influences the people who feed those birds.

"Given that so many people are so invested in attracting birds to their backyard, we were interested in what natural changes they observe at their feeders beyond simply more birds," said Ashley Dayer, an assistant professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation in the College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech. "In particular, we wanted to know how they respond to their observations. For example, how do they feel if they see sick birds at their feeders, and what actions do they take to address these observations?"

Researchers Ashley Dayer and Dana Hawley of Virginia Tech recently published their findings in People and Nature, a new journal published by the British Ecological Society.

The study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.

The researchers analyzed how people who feed birds notice and respond to natural events at their feeders by collaborating with Project FeederWatch, a program managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that engages more than 25,000 people to observe and collect data on their backyard birds.

Study finds people who feed birds impact conservation
A birdwatcher fills the feeders in her backyard. Here, she will observe birds and other natural events, which her feeding may contribute to. Credit: L. Williams, Virginia Tech

Using a survey of 1, 176 people who feed birds and record their observations of birds in the Project FeederWatch database, the researchers found that most people noticed natural changes in their backyards that could be due to feeding, including an increase in the number of birds at their feeders, a cat or hawk near their feeders, or a sick bird at their feeders.

"More and more, we see that humans are interacting less with nature and that more of our are being restricted to areas where there are humans around. Looking at how humans react to and manage wildlife in their own backyards is very important for the future of wildlife conservation and for understanding human well-being as the opportunities for people to interact with wildlife become more restricted to backyard settings," said Hawley, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science. Hawley's research program at Virginia Tech focuses on wildlife disease ecology and evolution.

"From my 17 years working with people who feed birds as part of citizen science projects, I've heard a great deal about their impactful observations at their feeders," said co-author David Bonter, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "This study provides important information about the breadth and pattern of these experiences through responses of over 1,000 participants. The findings will help us at Project Feederwatch improve how we work with bird watchers toward our shared goal of bird conservation."

The people who feed birds also responded, particularly to cats at their feeders, by scaring off the cats, moving feeders, or providing shelter for birds. When observing sick birds, most people cleaned their feeders. When observing more birds, people often responded by providing more food. Fewer people acted in response to seeing hawks; the most common response to this was providing shelter for the feeder birds. These human responses were, in some cases, tied to peoples' emotions about their observations, particularly anger. While cats near feeders most commonly evoked anger, sick birds led to sadness or worry. Emotions in response to hawks were more varied.

"Feeding is a deceptively commonplace activity. Yet, it is one of the most intimate, private, and potentially profound forms of human interaction with nature. This perceptive study uncovers some of the remarkable depth associated with bird feeding and discerns that people who feed birds are alert to a wide range of additional natural phenomena," said Darryl Jones, a professor at the Environmental Futures Research Institute and School of Environment and Sciences at Griffith University in Australia, who was not connected to the study.

One surprising result that the researchers found in this study was that when deciding how much to feed birds, people prioritized natural factors, such as cold weather, more than time and money. Most people believed that the effects of their feeding on wild birds was primarily good for birds, even though many observed and took action in response to natural events in their backyard that could impact the health of the birds and might partly result from their feeding.

"Overall, our results suggest that people who feed birds observe aspects of nature and respond in ways that may affect outcomes of feeding on wild birds. More work is needed to fully understand the positive and negative effects of feeding on wild and, thereby, the people who feed them," said Dayer, whose research focuses on the human dimensions of , applying social science to understand human behavior related to wildlife.


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More information: Ashley A. Dayer et al, Observations at backyard bird feeders influence the emotions and actions of people that feed birds, People and Nature (2019). DOI: 10.1002/pan3.17
Provided by Virginia Tech
Citation: Study finds people who feed birds impact conservation (2019, March 26) retrieved 20 June 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2019-03-people-birds-impact.html
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Mar 26, 2019
Aren't we also in turn making feeder birds overly dependent on us for protection and food? What effect does that have on them?

Mar 27, 2019
My friend has a lot of hummingbirds whom stay their winters and feed at his place. Others come through just on their way fattening up for the long flight ahead of them.

We do pay particular attention to the weather, the population of birds, and making sure that on the few really frozen days that we had, that their feeder was clear and thawed, so they Could feed. We understand that some of the birds will decide to stay because of the feeder being out, but it has gone on for several of their generations, and already they are differentiating to a degree as has already been noted.

But here in the Pacific Northwest it is not usually severe in the winters, and some species of birds do winter it through here, especially with mild weather and nice people feeding em. Some of the hummingbirds stay normally, this just gives them an extra food source.

But the article is right in that bird-feeding people pay attention to the habitat and changes in it.

Mar 29, 2019
Aren't we also in turn making feeder birds overly dependent on us for protection and food? What effect does that have on them?

This is an interesting question. Some birds are so overly dependent on humans, they have lived near humans for the past several thousands of years. Sparrows seem to need an ecosystem dominated by humans; they are hard to find in the wild. Pigeons are close to that. Other animals depend on humans more or less, more during the winter. Some live near humans (many small birds), some actually avoid, but benefit from humans (in winter deer are sometimes fed by people where I live).

I'd say in the end many species are opportunists rather than dependent on humans. Many can find a place in the wild if needed, so it's probably not a big problem. But then, we'd probably start worrying about sparrows, pigeons, swallows etc.

Apr 01, 2019
The birds I see at my feeder are birds that have had a long standing relationship with humans in their towns and cities - mostly sparrows but also Tits. I wonder if loss of habitat was factored into this study. My location has seen a drastic loss in woodland habitat so my small, wild woodland garden is making up for that with a single feeder that is only available to birds during the winter months. Once there is ample forage, I stop feeding.

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