Photograph by Wayne Gammon, National Geographic Your Shot

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Finches gather around a bird feeder on a snowy day. There are an estimated 45 million backyard birders in the United States.

Photograph by Wayne Gammon, National Geographic Your Shot

Bird Feeding Takes Wing in U.S., With Summer Meals, Designer Seed

As citizen science becomes more important, can the hobby diversify?

Stanley A. Temple couldn't believe his good luck.

It was back in the 1980s, when warnings abounded about the dangers of feeding birds in the winter. Some feared that the practice could turn noble, wild animals into needy, dependent beggars, unwilling to forage and possibly starving to death or becoming vulnerable to disease.

Many people had asked Temple, an avian ecologist, whether it was true. But no studies had been conducted. When he and a colleague at the University of Wisconsin decided to test the thesis, "it was one of those, 'Oh, you're kidding me' moments," said Temple, now an emeritus professor of wildlife at the school.

And the answer? Nope. Not true.

In the winter of 1984-85, Temple and his colleague Margaret C. Brittingham removed a bird feeder from the nature center at Devil's Lake State Park that had been stocked every winter for the previous 25 years. They banded 49 feeder habitué black-capped chickadees and then, in a remote, permanently feeder-less region, banded 35 more.

The results, Temple wrote, "provided no evidence for harmful effects of forcing the Devil's Lake 'feeder addicts' to go 'cold turkey.'" Survival rates were essentially the same.

Temple and Brittingham also found that on average, the chickadees obtained only 20 to 25 percent of their calories from feeders. As one food supply runs out in the winter—whether it's insects left from the previous summer or seeds of fading summer flowers—birds move on to another food source.

You seldom hear those old welfare concerns anymore, and many backyard birders now happily feed birds in both winter and summer. At the same time, a growing number of "citizen science" projects that help track birds and their range have focused on birds in urban and suburban habitats, which are rapidly replacing the wilder areas where the birds once ranged.

Seeding a Movement

In the birding world today—with ornithologists now relying on the sidewalk-lined landscape and backyard birders for data—it feels good, even noble, to feed birds in the backyard.

Every ten years, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the U.S. loses 21 million acres to residential landscapes—an area the size of Maryland and West Virginia combined. The good news is that those converted acres are inhabited by a growing number of bird watchers and feeders. In 2006, according to the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife Associated Recreation, there were 42 million backyard birders. In 2011, there were about 45 million.

And they're willing to shell out for birdseed.

Although you can buy a 20-pound wild bird blend for under $7 at some big box stores, fancier blends in the same size can run as high as nearly $50.

"It's plenty expensive," said Temple, noting that bird feeding dropped during the recession.

"We had a really big spike about two-and-a-half years ago, and it's settled in since then," said Jim Carpenter, founder and chief executive of Wild Birds Unlimited, who is also on the boards of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Roger Tory Peterson Institute.

Some of the cheaper blends, he adds, have less of the seeds that birds actually eat.

Tracking Trends

Wild Birds Unlimited is a franchise with 270 locations, and Carpenter keeps a close eye on trends. One is the expansion of bird feeding into summer.

When Carpenter opened his first store, in 1981, the concern about winter feeding was a hot topic. Nowadays he still occasionally hears it, despite the studies to the contrary.

"We don't promote that you have to feed them for survival," he says. "You feed them to get to see them." Summer "is the coolest time of the year to watch woodpeckers. And this time of the year, little fledglings come out of the nest. And everyone was missing that because they would stop [after the winter]."

Another trend is that consumers are looking for feed blends that leave less mess—seed shells and seed that falls as the birds forage in the feeder.

And then there's the issue of diversity.

Environmental groups have begun trying to change the demographics of birding. A 2011 census by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that 91 percent of those who watched wildlife (mostly birds) around their homes were white.

"It's a problem," said Karen Ann Purcell, who works in the Citizen Science department at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "We've been doing citizen science for a long time, and one of the things that we noticed from the very beginning is that participants tended to be very well educated and fairly affluent and white—and we wanted to change that. If we're not hearing the voices of all types of people in science, science is going to be in trouble. We have to reflect the world we live in."

Working with the National Science Foundation, Cornell came up with several projects to broaden the base. One was Celebrate Urban Birds, which so far has partnered with more than 9,000 community organizations to reach places where the overwhelming majority of participants had no previous experience with birds. It emphasizes 16 species that are common in urban and suburban environments, and encourages participants to find as many as possible in a ten-minute period.

It also looks for ways to improve green spaces in neighborhoods. A program called Funky Nests demonstrates how thoroughly birds have made urban spaces their own, nesting on stoplights and statues and in the nooks and crevices of buildings.

"People living in these communities didn't think birds nested there," said Purcell, Celebrate Urban Birds's project leader. "They thought they nested in the forest."

Nature Takes Its Course, of Course

As to how the myth of bird welfare dependency arose during the Reagan era, nobody really knows. But Temple speculates that, rather than reflecting a political view, it was "people's egos thinking that what they are doing for birds in putting out food is so important that, if they stop, the birds will perish."

But they don't, he said.

Or, as Carpenter put it, "When a berry bush has berries and they eat them all, they don't wait for next year's crop."