Bird feeders attract more than birds

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

When it comes to urban wildlife can’t we all just get along? An article appearing in the The Wall Street Journal makes no apologies at squirrel bashing in the name of bird feeding even though everyone has to eat. In the article Ralph J. Gardner, Jr., writes that he has gone to war “Against the squirrels in my backyard.” Defending his bird feeders against the “fat and dull” squirrels that live there he has threatened them with a BB gun, fantasized about squirrel chasing dogs and extols the virtues of squirrel proof bird feeders and the joys of watching the thwarted: “frenzied, frustrated squirrels as the weight of their greedy, obese little paws causes the shroud that encases the feeder to descend, shutting off their food supply.”

Well, hungry squirrels- I've got your back:

Providing supplemental food sources such as seeds and grains for those birds that depend on them in harsh and extreme weather may somewhat mitigate the impact of loss of habitat the trees and shrubs we have cleared that would normally provide food and shelter. It can also attract those seed and grain eating (Granivorous ) birds to feeder locations. And we like feeding birds it feels good to care for them, it connects us with the other inhabitants of the natural world outside our windows. And for some of us, those other inhabitants include squirrels. And those squirrels are not always doing acrobatics to share in the spoils.

Watch those birds at a feeder next time and notice how much of the feed on hand is rejected either due to preference or size. What falls beneath the feeder can be picked up by other individual birds or as Reed and Bonter, found in a 2018 study, by mostly squirrels and raccoons that can hang around long after the meal is over.

Birds, squirrels and raccoons are not the only species attracted to the food and shelter humans can provide in winter. Unintended guests at our feeders or not, for animals that do not hibernate, finding enough food and shelter determine if they can survive until spring. And once these supplemental feeding locations become known, other species can come to depend on them and increase in population including knowing where the bird nests are – small rodents such as mice and rats along with corvids like jays are the main culprits for decimating nestlings. Our feeding sites can also have the unintended consequences of window strikes if feeders are placed too far from a window or a window lacks a screen to break up reflections and absorb impacts.

Back to our enterprising squirrels- Grey squirrels breed in mid December through early January. This means that right now, female squirrels need to find enough food to sustain them through not just the cold but a six week pregnancy. Male squirrels also need enough food to survive the winter where food sources are scarce and to compete with other males for breeding females and shelter. In the wild squirrels live on fruit and nuts, in urban areas squirrels forage for available food. When bird feeders are accessible to squirrels they use them for food sources.

In fact, if a feeder intended by humans to feed birds only can be accessed by any other animal it becomes an animal feeder by default. No blame, it's all fair. When you're hungry or have young to feed, you find the food where you can. It’s the way it is in nature and in the nature in your back yard. “Bird” feeders can and do attract a range of animals besides squirrels to backyards including foraging feral cats, deer, black bears and raccoons.

If birds are all you want to feed in your backyard make sure and use a feeder designed to only support bird body weight, place it properly (at least five feet off the ground and 8 feet away from other structures), provide seed and nuts with less waste (seeds and nuts without shells to shed) and change the feed and clean the feeder every week —diseases can easily be passed between birds when feeders are not maintained.

And as for the rest of the animals—hope they find a meal too, it’s cold outside.


Reed, J. H., & Bonter, D. N. (2018). Supplementing non-target taxa: bird feeding alters the local distribution of mammals. Ecological applications : a publication of the Ecological Society of America, 28(3), 761–770.

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