Does feeding wild birds make them dependent on you?

If your feeder is empty, what happens to the wild birds? This American article describes how back-garden feeding may affect the ability of wild birds to survive month-to-month and over the winter. Thus, you can decide if you want to continue to feed birds in your yard during certain periods of the year.

By Mike Kershaw

There is much debate about feeding birds and whether it will lead to birds that are dependent on you and your food.

There are many that think birds will become dependent on the feed you provide resulting in a diminished ability for the birds to find their own food. Other experts think that our feathered friends are much more resilient and will discover new sources of food if the feeder repeatedly is empty and they can’t support themselves or their young.

As reported in Bird Watcher’s Digest, researchers Margaret Brittingham and Stanley Temple found that black-capped chickadees take, on average, only 20-25 per cent of their winter food requirements from feeders. But, they also demonstrated a significant correlation between an individual bird’s ability to survive the winter and the use of bird feeders.

Evidence shows that aves that eat food provided by humans through feeders had an annual (not just winter) survival rate that is 8 per cent higher (up to 95 per cent from 87 per cent) than those birds that don’t eat food provided by humans. For winter (as opposed to month-to-month), 69 per cent of the feeder using birds survived the winter where only 37 per cent of wild non-feeder using birds survived the winter.

If more wild birds survive the winter when we feed them, what are the implications? In simple terms, it means that without our help, a higher number of birds fail to survive the winter. If we help, more birds will survive. Curiously, even though our food supply will decrease the winter death rate, our avian friends will not completely rely on us. If your bird feeders are consistently empty, these amazing animals will almost always take flight to find another source of food on their own. You will also notice that in the spring, when food abounds, the birds are not as active at the feeders as they are in the winter when food is harder to find.

We can only suspect that different birds, like people, have different levels of dependence. However, the truth is that our avian friends will adapt. If one fails to continue a consistent feeding program, the birds will adapt and search for food.

I recommend that if you start a bird feeding program, stay consistent. It is best if you fill the feeders at the same time every day or whatever interval you need and ensure that the feeders do not stay empty for extended periods. For really great public information about bird feeding, go to

Also, if you plan to go on vacation or holiday, plan for your absence. In your short-term (1-4 days) absence from home, a good practice is to completely stock your feeder and also place some on the earth and around vegetation in the general area of your feeding stations. If you are going to be gone for an extended time, ask your friends, neighbors, or relatives to check and fill your feeders on a consistent basis.

As for winter feeding, it is more serious. Some bird populations may not migrate to areas of higher food availability if there is a reliable source near their summer habitats. Thus, if you feed birds on a consistent basis over the spring and summer, it is important that you are extremely consistent in the winter, when some species may rely on your food to survive.

To make a long story short, it is better for survival rates if you feed wild birds in your yard. But if you decide to feed them, it is ideal if you are consistent in your feeding.

Mike Kershaw has a graduate degree in biological sciences and is an expert in attracting and retaining wild birds in your back garden. Mike is a wild bird enthusiast and owner/operator of the online wild bird supplies superstore The Bird Warehouse.

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