Wild Bird Feeding Industry
Responses to the WSJ Article, December 2002
June 11, 2010: The link to the article referenced below is:
This article may be found by using the Google search string: Feeding Birds May Harm Them."
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Responses to the Wall Street Journal Article that appeared Friday, December 27, 2002:

Wild Bird Feeding Industry response

Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology response

Scott Shalaway response

Wild Bird Centers of America response

To the Editors of the Wall Street Journal:

The Wild Bird Feeding Industry (WBFI) and its members have made note of your story "Feeding Birds May Harm Them and the Environment" published on the front page of the Wall Street Journal on Friday, December 27, 2002.

We are also aware of several communications from some of the most noted and respected authorities in the field of backyard wildlife feeding and habitat development. We believe some of these communications have been forwarded directly to the WSJ editors. These ornithologists and wildlife specialists are well qualified and knowledgeable in the areas they are addressing.

The WBFI and its members remain dedicated to the promotion of responsible feeding. Our members may be birders. Most of our members are backyard wild bird feeders at their residences by choice. We are among the 52.9 million Americans reported in the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife Watching. As the technical literature and research state, we 52.9 million people, spread out over this great country of ours, are not engaged in an activity that is detrimental to the wild bird populations. The respected authorities who are responding to the WSJ article are very clearly detailing the reasons why an alarm will not be raised on this issue.

Through their dedication of time and resources, WBFI members are supporters of wildlife habitat conservation and restoration. The WBFI as an association is proud to be a supporter of the efforts of the Migratory Bird Conservancy to secure habitat. We encourage our members to join us in this effort, and many have done so. Habitat is just one of the major issues facing America as we move into a new century and a new millennium. We hope that our positive example will encourage others to join us in this critical endeavor.


Susan M. Hays
Executive Director
Wild Bird Feeding Industry


Response from Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology (reprinted with permission)
Dear Wall Street Journal:

The meandering article by Mr. Sterba on purportedly negative effects of backyard bird-feeding pointed out some interesting issues, and deserves praise for its balanced treatment of the growing need for trapping and culling "wildlife" such as feral cats and predator-liberated deer. However, 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 point 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" (both quotes from p. 15 of Birds at Your Feeder by E.R. Dunn and D. L. Tessaglia-Hymes, Norton and Co., 1999).

Most egregious of Mr. Sterba's scientific miscues is his reference to our demonstration that a disease caused 60% declines in some House Finch populations in eastern North America (Density dependent decline of host abundance resulting from a new infectious disease, by W. M. Hochachka and A. A. Dhondt, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, vol. 97, pp. 5303-5306). He 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. Bird feeders may have accelerated the spread of House Finches, but our work suggests that the Micoplasma epidemic would have spread even in the absence of bird feeders. Disease prevalence increases most rapidly in late summer and fall, when Houses Finches visit feeders only sporadically, and is lowest during mid-winter, when finches visit feeders regularly. Most important, 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. All animal populations are controlled to some extent by disease, and it was only a matter of time before the eastern House Finches would encounter this one.

Mr. Sterba missed an even more important point about the House Finch disease story: tens of thousands of interested citizens across the country who enjoy nature by feeding birds are also contributing information that allows us to study the natural dynamics of this infectious outbreak, plus dozens of other key questions about North American bird populations (see http://birds.cornell.edu). Indeed, the well-demonstrated scientific and educational potential of these "citizen scientists" -- often using bird feeders as tools for monitoring and teaching -- has prompted the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health to support several major research projects engaging the general public in the process of studying daily, seasonal, and year-to-year fluctuations in bird numbers. From their purely esthetical value in millions of backyards, to their usefulness in building inquiry skills among classroom students, to their applications in peer-reviewed, quantitative, environmental monitoring, bird feeders present extraordinary connections between our human culture and the natural world. To suggest that they are damaging because they are also used by squirrels and chipmunks, or that they spread diseases that reduce bird numbers, is to ignore a large and growing body of scientifically demonstrated information.

John W. Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.
Director, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
President-emeritus (2000-2002), American Ornithologists' Union


Andre A. Dhondt, Ph.D.
Program Director, Bird Population Studies
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology

Response by Wild Bird Centers of America

Letters to the Editor
The Wall Street Journal
200 Liberty Street
New York, N.Y. 10281
Cc: Fax: 212-416-2255
E-mail: wsj.ltrs@wsj.com

The tens of millions of North Americans who stock their backyard feeders with seed gladly welcome any good information that keeps those feeders safe and healthy for wild birds. It would be regrettable if James P. Sterba's one-sided and poorly researched claim that feeding wild birds does more harm than good ("American Backyard Feeders May Do Harm To Wild Birds," Dec. 27, 2002) caused any of them to abandon such a positive and enriching activity.

Some of the arguments raised by Mr. Sterba can be easily dismissed. For one, migration patterns cannot be affected by feeding, as it is the decline in the amount of daylight that triggers birds' departure, not the food supply. There is also no evidence that bird feeders harm birds in other ways. The lead author of the study cited to support SterbaÕs claims of negative impact has concluded that bird feeding does not cause mortality to rise above natural levels and does not negatively impact bird populations.

Is there a chance, as Mr. Sterba suggests, that a dependency on handouts will create a "welfare" population of birds unable to forage their own food? Key studies of winter flocks of black-capped chickadees by University of Wisconsin researchers Margaret Brittingham and Stanley Temple show that, even in harsh winter weather, the birds took no more than 10 percent of their diet from feeders and had no trouble switching back to natural foods when their familiar feeders were removed.

It is easy to fall into the trap of overstating the impact of bird feeding-either positive or negative-on avian populations. Existing research uniformly shows that the impact of feeders on bird populations is minimal to nonexistent. This is not surprising considering that wild birds usually take less than 3 percent of their food from feeders.

It is significant-and a little troubling- that Mr. Sterba's article relied heavily on sources associated with fish and game interests. The birding community is well aware that state fish and game agencies, strapped for money as income from hunting and fishing declines, have an interest in defining the enjoyment of birds as a "consumptive" use of wildlife-i.e., one that can be taxed. During the Clinton administration, their concerted efforts to institute a tax on bird seed failed in part because of the widespread (and correct) view that bird feeding is essentially benign. Against this background, the bias of many of Mr. Sterba's sources is obvious.

Certainly, people must be aware of the need for controlling populations of feral cats and predator-liberated deer. But, as the founder of Wild Bird Centers of America, I have often said that the more urbanized we become the greater our need for connection to nature. Nothing closes the distance between humans and the natural world quite as well as watching birds at our own backyard feeder. For millions of us, it is how we first developed a sense of stewardship for the natural world.


Scott Shalaway
R.D. 5, Box 76
Cameron, WV 26033
© 2003

In Defense of Feeding Birds

A December 27 front page story on feeding backyard birds in the Wall Street Journal, normally a bastion of journalistic excellence, failed on three counts. The headline writer clearly created the misconception that feeding birds is bad for them. The reporter wandered widely in search of a story on the economics of feeding wild birds. And the graphic artist who illustrated the piece did so with a photo of a European goldfinch.

Ah, where to begin? Let's start with the artist. Why use an Old World species to illustrate a story on North American birds? My guess is inexperience or ignorance. To a graphic artist, a goldfinch is a goldfinch.

To a birder, confusing an American goldfinch with a European goldfinch would be akin to confusing a quarterback with a cornerback, or a Ford with a Chevy.

The headlines on the article seem intentionally misleading. They read: "Crying Fowl; Feeding Wild Birds May Harm Them And Environment; It Lures Pests, Causes Illnesses; Changing the Relationship Between Man and Nature; A Booming Business in Seeds." When the story jumps to an inside page, the adline reads, " Backyard Bird Feeders May Also Cause Harm." That's a mouthful of headlines. But the message is clear and intentional - feeding birds is bad. I don't see how anyone could read those words and not get that impression. So everyone who skimmed the headlines, but skipped the story took away a negative impression about feeding birds.

Reporter James Sterba began by noting that according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in 2001 Americans spent $2.6 billion on wild bird seed. He pointed out that more Americans feed birds (52.8 million) than hunt (13 million) or fish (34.1 million). He quoted wildlife damage control workers who say that backyard bird feeders are great for their business &endash; bird seed attracts squirrels, raccoons, skunks, and even bears. He reported that feeders concentrate birds and make them susceptible to disease, predators, and window kills. And he wrote that, "Some wildlife biologists worry that backyard bird feeders may be creating populations of dependent wintering birds." Only later does he add that, " the few studies done in these areas suggest that such worries are unwarranted." (I sure wish he had named Those wildlife biologists.)

The tone of the entire article troubles me. I've been feeding and studying backyard birds for more than 25 years. Through this column, seminars, and my radio shows, I encourage others to do the same. I promote the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's Project FeederWatch, a citizen science program that is the source of much of what we know about feeding birds all across the continent. Feeding wild birds connects us directly with nature and fosters a land ethic. It's an inexpensive educational pastime, and its appeal narrows and crosses generation gaps.

A book spawned by Project FeederWatch and based on field research, Birds at Your Feeder (1999) by Erica Dunn and Diane Tessaglia-Hymes, assures readers that, "...feeders do not draw birds into an environment that is more dangerous than the one they face in the wild," and "you can continue to feed birds with a clear conscience. All current evidence suggests you are not unduly upsetting natural ecological systems."

The Wall Street Journal is read by millions. Its credibility is rarely questioned. But I know birds, and Sterba's article created some strong false impressions. Just keep a few biological facts in mind.

• Seed-eating birds visit many patches of food each day because they are highly mobile. They fly. When one patch of food in nature is consumed, they find others. Feeders are simply great food patches.

• During severe winter weather, supplemental foods help birds survive.

• Diseases spread wherever birds gather, whether it's at natural food patches or backyard feeders. Maintaining a tidy feeding area virtually eliminates this problem.

• And yes, hawks come to bird feeders; seeds attract their prey. But the interaction of predator and prey in the backyard is unusual, and for me, one of the highlights of a feeding station.

So, beyond this column, don't believe everything you read. Even if it's in the Wall Street Journal.