Ashley A. Dayer, Connor Rosenblatt, David N. Bonter, Holly Faulkner, Richard J. Hall, Wesley M. Hochachka, Tina Phillips, and Dana M. Hawley

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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. While we know that bird feeding can influence nature, we don’t know how it influences the people who feed birds. That is, we don’t know how people who feed birds notice and respond to natural events at their feeders.

A birdwatcher fills the feeders in her backyard. Here, she will observe birds and other natural events, which her feeding may contribute to. Photo by L. Williams.

Using a survey of people who feed birds and record their observations of birds in an online database, we 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. They also responded, particularly to cats at their feeders, by scaring off the cats, moving feeders, or providing shelter for birds.  For sick birds, they cleaned feeders, and for notable increases in birds, they kept feeders fuller.  In response to hawks, fewer people took action, most commonly by providing shelter to 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. Further, when deciding how much to feed birds, people prioritized natural factors such as cold weather more than time and money. Most people believe the effects of their feeding on wild birds to be primarily good for birds, even though many observed and took action in response to natural events in their backyard that can impact the health of 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.

American_Goldfinch_Dark_eyed_Junco_Purple_Finch_18560_Cynthia_Raught_Numidia_PA2015_High ASHLEY DAYER
A dark-eyed junco, American goldfinch, and house finch feed on sunflower seeds on a snowy day. Bird watchers report that cold weather influences how much they feed birds, more so than time or money. Photo by Cynthia Raught.