adapted from National Audubon

Whether we identify as birders or photographers or both, we are always looking for ways to get closer to birds, or to bring them closer to us. Offering food is an easy way to do that. But knowing what kind of food is okay to supply, and when, and where, can be confusing.

So how do we make sense of it all? For guidance, ask yourself these three questions.

1. Is this species at risk? If a bird is classified as “threatened,” “endangered,” or “of special concern,” that means it is struggling to survive. We must exercise extreme caution when making decisions that might affect that bird. Even if we have the best intentions, what we think might benefit a bird might actually cause unintended negative consequences.

2. Is the food appropriate and safely provided? The most common place we offer food to birds is, of course, in our own backyards. Fortunately, there is a wealth of information on how to safely set up and maintain bird feeders. Providing feeders means taking on a responsibility, as in addition to food they can present a whole host of risks, including the spread of viruses and parasites, a greater chance of window strikes, and increased vulnerability to cats and raptors. 

Of course, the healthiest, most natural food you can offer to attract birds to your yard are native trees and shrubs. 

3) Is feeding this bird likely to change its behavior in harmful ways? Might feeding this bird cause it to associate food with a particular place? Does it draw the bird closer to roads, for example, where it could be struck by a car? Feeding a bird might also lead it to trust people. Could that habituation eventually put it in danger? Does the bird migrate to a region where it’s not well understood, or where it’s hunted? The answer will be different for a bird of prey (possibly yes) than for a songbird at a feeder or for a chickadee hand-fed sunflower seeds in a preserve (probably no).

You don’t have to be a bird expert or conservationist to realize that birds today face a multitude of challenges. When thinking of offering food to birds, as nature photographers, birders, or nature lovers, each one of us can take a little time to do some research and to sensibly weigh the pros and cons of our choices.