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What You Need to Know About Feeding Wildlife in Your Backyard

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Tags: feedings, animals, wildlife, birds, squirrels

Created: 10/31/2014      Updated: 8/8/2016

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I have recently received many questions about feeding animals so I thought a general discussion about backyard feeding of animals like birds and squirrels would be useful. Feeding animals can be fun and it provides an opportunity to watch the animals closely. On the other hand, feeding can concentrate diseases dangerous to the animals and sometimes to you, and can attract pests and predators.  

Birds on birdfeeder

To deal with the disease problem keep your feeders, baths, and the area you feed in clean and sunny. Also keep an eye on frequently used perches and loafing areas. Remove food debris daily, hose down everything with water, use soap when appropriate (I like Dawn best—skip anti-bacterial varieties) and use a mild bleach solution to regularly clean bird baths, feeders and other appliances. Rinse and dry well. UV light is your friend -- it kills most disease causing organisms pretty quickly but it doesn’t penetrate shade or underneath objects. 

You might also consider moving your feeding site around. It’s difficult to remove every last bit of chaff, crumbs, and poop, but ants, earthworm, millipedes and many other garden organisms will do the final cleanup for you. While these invertebrates are beneficial components of our neighborhoods, rats and mice are pests that will also move in to clean up debris from your feeding stations. The reason rats and mice are a problem is because they can cause substantial economic damage through their gnawing and foraging activities. More importantly, they can carry diseases that can be readily contracted by humans. Many municipalities have banned bird feeders simply because they quickly become rodent feeders and thus a public health concern. By keeping a scrupulously clean feeding station, you greatly minimize the chance of making your yard a vector of human or wildlife disease.

Squirrel eating

Although you may have certain species in mind when you put out a feeder, many species will be influenced by the additional food you have introduced to the environment. To maximize the chances of seeing your target species, make sure you are providing the most appropriate food. If you want to see goldfinch, you must supply thistle seeds. If you supply hazelnuts you might see squirrels and woodpeckers, but sparrows will ignore you. Cracked corn is, in general, just a filler that does little to attract the species most people want to see. If it is present in your seed mix, there’s a good chance it will be tossed out of the feeder in favor of more palatable food like millet only to later attract rodents. Regardless of what you put out though, you will also attract non-target species. Sugary hummingbird feeders will also give you a chance to watch a variety of bee species. Seed feeders will often bring squirrels to your yard, but the songbirds they attract will also bring raptors. These birds of prey can’t feed their young on seeds, they must have meat. Don’t feel badly if you find feathers and other sign of a predation even hear your feeder. This is simply an indication that nature is at work in your neighborhood maintaining the strength of your avian friends and increasing biodiversity.

If you want to minimize predation you can feed infrequently or move your feeder around regularly. While this will keep the predators guessing, it will also keep your target species guessing so you might not see the large and regular concentrations of birds that you would with a more regular feeding time and place. Of course, if you are unlucky enough to live in a place where cats roam at will, nothing you do will be enough to prevent predation and you will have less diversity at your feeders.

Finally, when choosing a place to put your feeder, make sure you don’t become the predator — via your house. Windows can kill a lot of birds. During the day, birds usually hit windows because of a mirror effect where the window looks like open sky or a sheltering bush. At night, lights lure birds too close. There are many online resources to help you determine how to prevent your house from becoming a deathtrap. Making the windows visible is important. It’s hard to avoid putting feeders in places where there is some danger from windows though, since a primary reason for feeding animals is to see them better. So, in general, feeders should be sited close to the windows. This not only improves viewing but it also limits the danger of windows for birds because, if they are frightened when at the feeder and take off in the direction of the window, they aren’t flying very fast when they hit it. If the feeder is further, the bird gathers enough speed to cause a concussion when it hits.

Steve Sullivan, Senior Curator of Urban Ecology

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