Researchers Study People Who Feed Birds in Their Backyards and Implications for Bird Conservation


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 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.

Researchers Ashley Dayer and Dana Hawley of Virginia Tech set out to change all this by studying the observations and corresponding actions of people who feed birds. 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, and their findings were recently published in People and Nature, a new journal published by the British Ecological Society.

“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 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?”

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.

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 wildlife 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,” said Hawley, an associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science whose research program focuses on wildlife disease ecology and evolution.

Birds at a backyard feeder. Image credit pml2008, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Co-author David Bonter, director of citizen science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, echoed this same sentiment, citing his 17 years of experience in working with people who feed birds and learning about their observations. “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 wild birds 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 birds and, thereby, the people who feed them,” said Dayer, whose research focuses on the human dimensions of wildlife conservation, applying social science to understand human behavior related to wildlife.

Dayer and Hawley are both affiliated faculty of the Global Change Center, which is housed within the Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech. This research was jointly funded by the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech and the Institute for Science, Culture, and Environment.

“This research effort is one of five projects resulting from our annual joint funding effort to promote collaborations between the social sciences/humanities and the biophysical sciences/engineering,” said William Hopkins, director of the Global Change Center at Virginia Tech and professor of fish and wildlife conservation. “It’s wonderful to watch new teams develop from these seed grants, and the collaboration between Drs. Dayer and Hawley is a great example of this initiative in action. It will be exciting to watch the research team’s success in years to come.”

Featured image: birds on a feeder in winter. Image via Virginia Tech News.

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