Bird Feeding Fatigue

I’m suffering from BFF. Not Best Friends Forever, but Bird Feeding Fatigue. Normally scrupulous about keeping my various birdfeeders well-stocked, for about eight weeks I didn’t put out so much as a single seed.

After a long hiatus, on Wednesday I filled the feeders with fresh suet, safflower, and nyjer.

Part of the reason is that we just finished up a very busy period at work, one that required lots of weekend hours. Something had to give during this time.

But it’s also true that this has been an uninspiring year for Chicago-area bird feeding. This has been confirmed by Tim, the manager at the local Wild Birds Unlimited store. (Tim knows his birds.)

Hey, house sparrow! That nyjer seed is for the goldfinches! And it's expensive!
Hey, house sparrow! That nyjer seed is for the goldfinches! And it’s expensive!

We saw fewer orioles, woodpeckers, and grosbeaks, but so many, many house sparrows. House sparrows are actually finches that were introduced from Europe. In North America they have multiplied beyond the limits of good manners.

2013-02-08 14.02.20
House Sparrows, locusts of the bird world.

And speaking of bad manners, I must add that house sparrows are ravenous eating machines. They are the locusts of the bird world. They eat the safflower I put out for northern cardinals, they eat the nyjer seed I put out for the goldfinches, and they devour the peanuts I put out for the woodpeckers and nuthatches. They even learned to like the grape jelly that I put out for the orioles.

Now, you can say that we must not use human standards to judge the worth of birds and other animals. From a philosophical point of view, that may be correct.

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Few sights are more satisfying than a Northern Cardinal in the snow.

But here’s the thing. I’m the one paying for the bird food, and I do it for myself as much as for the birds. I do it so that Judy and I can watch the birds we like from our back porch. In my opinion, house sparrows are remarkably dull little birds. What’s more, they are birds that need no help from me to be fruitful and multiply.

Rose Breasted Grosbeak visits for a few weeks in May and June. After they leave, no more safflower seed until winter.
Rose Breasted Grosbeak visits for a few weeks in May and June. After they leave, no more safflower seed until winter.

So here’s my new plan. No more blank checks at the bird food store. The all-you-can-eat bird buffet is closed. I will not give up on feeding the birds, but there are limits.

I will keep fresh water in the bird baths throughout the year, including in our heated bird bath during the winter. Water can be harder to come by than food for wild birds.

I will not put out safflower during the summer, after the rose breasted grosbeaks are gone. I will put out peanuts only during winter. And I will put out grape jelly only while the orioles are around.

Downy woodpecker at suet feeder.
Downy woodpecker at suet feeder.

Suet is the one food I will put out throughout the year, because nobody eats it other than the woodpeckers. Disgusting stuff, but I like woodpeckers. (Suet is rendered beef fat, in case you were wondering.)

My least favorite birds will probably still consume a majority of the bird food, but I will no longer be pouring birdseed down a bottomless pit.

Do you feed birds in your garden, and if so, do you ever suffer from Bird Feeding Fatigue?

64 Comments on “Bird Feeding Fatigue”

  1. I know EXACTLY what you are talking about. I like to put out something for the hummingbirds but the feeders need to be cleaned and filled every couple of days and it starts to feel onerous. I have a couple of seed feeders for the little birds and they stay filled for a substantial amount of time but…still…a source of angst about keeping them clean and fresh and sanitary. We have mostly chickadees, house finches, yellow/gold? finches, juncos, and bush tits. They are all cute and (mostly) peaceable. The house finches are the most territorial. We have a sparrows, too, but they are in the minority.

  2. We have loads of sparrows this year too… lots of people have noticed it around us. Isn’t it odd how it changes from year to year. Sparrows were becoming quite rare just a few years ago. I don’t feed the birds as we have robbing squirrels and hunting cats in the neighbourhood…. the last two winters have been so mild they seem to have found plenty to keep them going in the woods anyway.

  3. I feed the little birds (chickadees, bushtits and nuthatches) with a suet feeder, but that’s it. Squirrels are big raiders of bird feeders around here nd they’re not even the native ones! I completely understand your stance.

  4. We to are inundateinundate with house sparrows. We had cardinals and blluejays. Then a flock of doves moved in for awhile. I worried when I saw a few pigeons but the we attracted a hawk and every bird left except the house sparrows.

  5. Glad it is not only me suffering from BFF. The sparrows in my backyard were not eating the safflower seed, they were throwing it on the ground, so I stopped putting that out last year. Most of the birds, even the gold finch, favor black sunflower seeds, so I will continue with that, and whole peanuts for the blue jays, despite the price (is there a peanut shortage?) The sparrows like a good brush pile, so that is going, too. (I have not seen my neighborhood Cooper’s hawk for a while – maybe that is why there are so many sparrows?) The bird bath attracts the widest variety of birds, so I’ll keep that heated all winter. And I’ll continue to plant food sources for them. But the feeders are falling by the wayside, one by one. (Per your comments above, I’ll add suet back in, even though it attracts starlings.)

  6. I think the RSPB said that sparrow populations had dipped very low last year in Britain – it was worrying (and echoes what Cathy says above). They used to be everywhere – I’m sure there were others annoyed like you! I can’t feed the birds because I love them and we have three cats. But I enjoy watching them through the windows in the morning before the door opens and the cats head off. (And even long distance I can’t miss the jays). So nice to see your pictures, especially the cardinal!

  7. I stop feeding the birds in late spring, for a couple reasons. One, where I live, they don’t really NEED food from me. Two, I do not want to attract bears. My neighbor feeds birds all year long, and actually goes to the trouble of bring her feeders inside EVERY SINGLE NIGHT, and putting them back out every morning. Even that is not a guarantee–two summers ago, we watched a mama and two cubs meander across our backyard over to hers in the bright light of day, and mama took her feeder down with one quick swipe! And three, in the summer too many catbirds and blue jays visit, and they bully the other birds away.

    During the seasons I do feed the birds, the cardinals are vociferous if the feeder on the front porch is empty. I will be sitting at the computer and suddenly hear some very insistent, urgent chirp, chirp, chirps! Very funny!

  8. Not yet feeling BFF, although the sparrows hit hard this summer. I switched to only safflower and black SF seeds, and that kept their numbers down to tolerable and gave the other small birds a chance at the feeder. I don’t mind if they throw seed to the ground, as the cardinals and doves prefer to pick it up there. A hawk discovered the feeder and took out one bird, and cats like to prowl through although I think they are more interested in the chipmunks. The little birds stayed away for perhaps a week after the hawk began to visit, and then slowly returned, by which time the hawk had moved elsewhere.

    I never tire of filling the hummingbird feeder. They are constant visitors who delight me every time. Sometimes downy woodpeckers come feed from it too.

    Suet here is visited not only by woodpeckers but also nuthatches and titmice. House sparrows seem to be less interested but occasionally nibble.

    Sorry to hear about your fatigue. I totally get it. Stupid sparrows.

  9. My house sparrows learned to drink the nectar from the oriole feeder how about that. And they like suet here all year long. I have to take in the suet feeders when the grackles come and the cowbirds because they bully the woodpeckers and other birds and are hogs eating it all in a few hours.

    But no other feeders for me. I try to feed the birds from my garden and I have 2 neighbors close by who do have extensive feeders.

  10. I keep my feeders mostly full all year round, especially in the winter. Sparrows are hogs but I don’t mind them. I put out big chunky seed in the winter and lots of suet. I have a platform feeder that the squirrels always raid but they’re hungry, too. Our area has become even more overdeveloped than it was when we moved here so my feeders and bird baths are a lifesaver for many birds.

  11. With respect to house sparrows, I’ve found that hanging clear fishing line off a feeder is very effective at keeping them away. For some unknown reason, the fishing line scares house sparrows but not other birds. It is really quite amazing. Probably wouldn’t work for a platform feeder though, as the line should hang down around the food.

  12. I agree that feeding the birds all winter can be grueling . . . and the sparrows are thugs when it comes to food. However, I have stymied them by hanging fishing line from the top of my feeder, which for some reason confuses the sparrows and lets the other birds have a turn at the buffet. I also do not start feeding until after Christmas, since I go away for the holiday and don’t want them to get used to feeding in my yard and then go hungry for 2 weeks.

  13. The House Sparrows ruin the feeding for me. We have about 200 that swarm around the feeders as soon as it gets cool. I am thinking about planting more berried plants etc and stopping the seed feeding. I will miss the occasional winter birds and the migrants but I can’t stand all the house sparrows. When we only had a couple dozen of them around I didn’t mind but now they are a nusiance.

  14. Hi Jason, at the moment I wish I could attract any birds to the feeders. There are only a handful to tentative visits at the moment, nothing like the mobs of birds we used to get at our old house. I’m expecting things to improve once the garden starts getting plants out but in the meantime, be careful what you wish for!

  15. As I’ve said before, it’s a shame all our sparrows have disappeared and yey you are over-run with them. I have to feed everything here all year, mainly because I release so many rescue birds here, it does cost a small fortune though…..especially when there are two dogs, a cat and a hedgehog to feed too!xxx

  16. There is plenty of food in the garden and the woods, but I fill a feeder anyway,for purely selfish reasons…my own entertainment. If I fall down on the job occasionally, I don’t feel too bad. As soon as there is food again, they find it right away. All are welcome, including the squirrels, with the possible exception of the sap suckers who are intent on girdling the birch trees. In ten years here, we still occasionally see an avian visitor that is new to us.

  17. I feed the birds that visit my garden all year round. I wish we were visited by more House Sparrows and Tree Sparrows, they rarely visit and are in severe decline over here primaraily because of the modern aggressive production of wheat. I feel absurdly protective and wish you could find a happy solution as watching birds feeding in your own garden is so joyful. I have just checked on the RSPB site which says they have declined by 71% between 1977 and 2008 in the UK and I imagine farming methods are similar in the US?

  18. We have black bears here and they take down bird feeders as fast as we can put them up, so I don’t put them up.
    I’ve always heard that birds will do just fine on naturals foods in the summer, so you should only feed them in the winter. Of course anyone who sells bird seed is going to tell you that it’s a crock, just made up by someone who hates birds.

  19. I enjoyed this post so much because your bird photos are outstanding! We do not feed the birds here though they were having a feeding frenzy on the berries on our honeysuckle (yes the one I want to chop down) It was such a glorious sight that I am reluctant to chop it down just yet! I do love birds and should learn more about what feed to put out! Glad you are back in action with a plan! Have a great weekend Jason!

  20. We keep seed out year round, but during large stretches of the summer the songbirds are scarce–either because of birds of prey or cats or foxes in the neighborhood. We have tons of birds in the spring and fall–many different species. And in the winter, I most definitely will keep the feeders full for the Cardinals, Chickadees, Juncos, and Woodpeckers. We have Sparrows, too–some native species and some of the non-native House Sparrows. But they don’t take over, so I tolerate them. I can see how it would be a drag if they took over.

  21. I’ll set up the feeder as soon as things start to ice up. Funny how it’s never ok to feed wild animals but then it’s ok to feed the birds, I was always a little confused by the double standard.
    The house sparrows have gained a new respect from me as I’ve watched them hunt down and eat Japanese beetles all summer. An invasive eating an invasive, something to warm the heart of any ecologist.

  22. For sure you should stop/take a break if it no longer is fun. Besides, you have so many native plants already supplying food that anything that goes into the feeder is like icing on the cake. I think you are so right that offering water is a gift they would truly appreciate.

  23. Oh, Jason you’re very right! Sparrows can eat all ‘that is not nailed’. I used to feed only titmice and blackbirds. They are often on my feeders. The magpie try to get some seeds from the feeders but they are too small for them and it’s good for small tits.

  24. BFF here too, but that’s typical for me in the fall. The noisy families are gone, as is the urge to keep them all filled up! I have few House Sparrows, and the ones that do show up must read my mind with the visual of me breaking their necks (swiftly of course) and they’re gone.

    It’s the squirrels that are the bane of my bird-feeding existence, but I usually get enough magpies and blue jays to keep them at bay when it’s peanut-feeding time. I pare down my feeders to just one sunflower and one suet for winter feeding. Much more manageable considering the reduced population.

  25. I feed birds all year round. I buy the mixed seeds in the summer and only buy sunflowers seeds in the winter. I buy suet at the $ store and always ask the butcher for some fat in the winter and he’s happy to give it to me and I pack the fat in an onion net. Blue Jays, woodpeckers, chickadees, etc just love it and I….love your blog, very interesting.

  26. I was so disappointed to learn, after planting all the shrubs and things that the backyard habitat people told me birds love, that birds really love bird feeders. They’re just as lazy as us. I don’t put out feeders in the summer since there’s so much food around but I feel your pain during the winter. Watching the starlings chase songbirds from the suet feeder is frustrating. And yeah, all we’re getting at the black sunflower seed feeder is house finches. Pfft.

  27. We get problems occasionally with wood peckers making a racket beating against our houses, and I have to pull back the peanuts. Also, the huge black birds sometimes try to take over and I stop putting out food for a few weeks until they find another feeding spot. You’re right about helping to provide fresh water. I need to try to do that more regularly.

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