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Birdfeeders -- More Harm Than Good?


Gregory J. Rummo

Editor's Note:  to see photos, go to this online version:


January 20, 2003

“I FEED the birdies in the park, they never get suspicious.
And when they get nice and fat, boy are they delicious.”

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that on most days, Ira and Sandy Grindlinger, the owners of Wild Birds Unlimited on Route 17 in Paramus, would chuckle over that little tune from an old recording of corny songs that, for whatever reason, is stuck in my head since childhood.

But not on this day.

“Here we are feeding, photographing and enjoying our little feathered friends, and along comes this article trying to destroy all the pleasure we derive from that,” Grindlinger said.

The article to which he was referring appeared on the front page of The Wall Street Journal on December 27.

Written by James P. Sterba, “American Backyard Feeders May Do Harm to Wild Birds,” characterized bird feeding enthusiasts as misguided and selfish in their efforts to offer birds a helping hand.

The article began by laying this guilt trip on the reader: “Last year, Americans spent $2.6 billion on birdseed. That's more than twice as much as they spent on prepared baby food, and two and a half times as much as they spent on food for needy nations.”

Sterba then went on to explain why all of this love and money is misdirected.

“Attracting wild birds to feeders spreads disease, aids predators such as house cats, and lures the birds close to houses and roads where tens of millions of them fly into windows and cars. House cats and hawks treat feeders as fast-food outlets, snatching birds from perches or the ground below. Birdseed attracts other mammals, too, and not just squirrels. Chipmunks, rats, raccoons, skunks and even bears feed on seed at night. That in turn prompts bird-loving homeowners to summon companies that trap or kill the intruders.”

To the bird feeding enthusiast it was as if the coal miner’s canary had just fallen off the perch. Can it really be true that we are killing them softly with compassion?


“As an avid bird enthusiast, you may very well have had the same initial reaction that I had when I first saw the headline which is to say, shock,” Grindlinger said. “But Sterba got a lot of facts wrong. He is, after all, a professor of ethics, not an ornithologist.”

This isn’t sour grapes on Grindlinger’s part because he earns a living selling bird seed and feeders. He had done some of his own research and provided me with a copy of the response to The Wall Street Journal article from Drs. John W. Fitzpatrick, the Director of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and Andre A. Dhondt, the Program Director for Bird Population Studies. 

The two ornithologists explained, “The article was at best patchy in its coverage of scientific questions involving bird-feeding and failed to present any of the distinctly positive aspects of this growing hobby. Although he quoted figures from the Cornell studies of backyard bird mortality, Mr. Sterba missed two crucial points repeatedly emphasized by the principal author of those studies (Dr. Erica Dunn, now at the Canadian Wildlife Service, and widely considered to be among North America's leading experts on bird population biology): "...bird feeding is not having a broad-scale negative impact on bird populations" and "...bird feeding does not cause mortality to rise above natural levels through exposing birds to unusual danger from window collisions, disease, or predation"

In addressing Sterba’s claim that bird feeders contributed to the rapid spread of conjunctivitis that killed off large populations of House Finches, Fitzpatrick and Dhondt said, “[Sterba] failed to mention that the House Finch itself was introduced to the east coast several decades ago. Explosive population growth of this highly gregarious bird throughout eastern U.S. made the species unusually vulnerable to a common bacterium, to which native bird species had long since become resistant. …The epidemic was not present among any native bird species common at bird feeders in the same region during the same period, and has failed to spread in western North America, where the House Finch itself was native.”

“Feeding and attracting the birds is a wonderful hobby that is fun, educational, and relaxing,” Grindlinger explains. “In fact, bird feeding has been called ‘nature's antidote to stress.’ The birds are magical in many ways, and they enrich our lives every day. For example, after the tragedy of September 11, many people turned to birds and nature for some measure of comfort and relief.”

This is good news because as I look out the window I realize I have a couple of birdfeeders to fill.


Gregory J. Rummo is a syndicated columnist. Read all of his columns on his
homepage, E-Mail Rummo at


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