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Bird feeding benefits people as much as birds

Ashley Dayer, an associate professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation at Virginia Tech, is challenging the traditional view of bird feeding as an activity solely beneficial for birds.

In a recent study, Dayer emphasizes the significance of bird feeding not only for avian populations but also for human wellbeing. This perspective invites a broader discussion on integrating bird feeding into public policy and guidance.

Human aspect of bird feeding

Dayer’s approach brings a novel dimension to wildlife management by considering the human aspect alongside avian wellbeing.

“Wildlife agencies and others making decisions on managing bird feeding need to be considering not only what the science is behind what’s going on with birds, but also the science behind what’s going on with people,” explains Dayer.

This perspective seeks to balance ecological concerns with the psychological and emotional impacts on people who engage in bird feeding.

Focus of the research

The importance of understanding human interactions with wildlife is further highlighted by Dayer’s and her team’s ongoing research. This unique study, perhaps the first of its kind, is not only observing birds but also the emotional responses of the people involved.

“People are not only reporting what they see at their bird feeders, but also their emotional responses to it,” Dayer said. “It’s pretty fun because most citizen science projects focus just on the natural or physical science, but we’re now able to look at the human piece of it.”

This approach, funded by a substantial grant from the National Science Foundation, delves into the psychological aspects of bird feeding, a factor often overlooked in traditional wildlife studies.

Dayer’s interest in this topic was sparked by the response of various state agencies to avian disease outbreaks, often advising the public to stop feeding birds without concrete evidence of its effectiveness in disease control. This observation led to the realization that current policies lack a comprehensive understanding of the human impact of such recommendations.

The ongoing research by Dayer and her team seeks to fill this gap, aiming to inform future guidelines that consider both avian health and human wellbeing.

Collaboration with Project FeederWatch

To further their research, the team is collaborating with Project FeederWatch, a program by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds Canada.

This partnership leverages FeederWatch’s extensive network and long-standing practice of bird observation, enriching the study with valuable data on bird counts and human interactions over the years.

Dayer’s personal connection to birds, stemming from her family’s practice, adds a heartfelt dimension to her scientific pursuit. Her mother always had bird feeders outside their family’s home, and the birds became almost like children for her.

“She’ll go on vacation and cut the vacation short because she needs to go home and feed her birds,” Dayer said. “So I’ve lived with someone who was really into bird feeding and have seen how important it can be to them.”

She reflects on how bird feeding can be a meaningful and accessible way for people from various backgrounds and abilities to connect with nature. “People in urban areas can feed birds. People with just a deck can feed birds. People with a wide range of physical abilities can feed birds. So it’s just a great way to keep that human connection to wildlife,” Dayer said.

This personal insight strengthens her advocacy for policies that recognize bird feeding as a valuable bridge between humans and wildlife.

Policies for both sides of bird feeding

Both Dayer and her colleague Dana Hawley, a professor of biological sciences, envision their work as a stepping stone towards developing guidelines that benefit both wild birds and the people who feed them.

“In all my years of studying how bird feeding impacts wild birds, I didn’t give much thought to how it can also impact the people that spend their time and money feeding and watching birds,” Hawley said. “I get calls every year from people who see a sick bird at their feeder and want to know how they can help prevent disease spread. All in all, this made me wonder about how policy decisions that aim to minimize disease spread can inadvertently impact the people who feed the birds.”

Their goal is to establish policies that ensure the health of bird populations while fostering a healthy relationship between humans and their feathered neighbors, especially in urban and suburban settings.

In summary, through this research and advocacy, Virginia Tech’s team is reshaping the narrative around bird feeding, highlighting its role as a mutually beneficial activity that deserves recognition and support in wildlife management and policy-making.

Birds and climate change

Climate change is significantly impacting bird populations worldwide. Rising temperatures are shifting habitats, compelling many species to migrate earlier or move to higher altitudes. For instance, in North America, birds traditionally seen in southern regions are now appearing further north. This shift disrupts ecosystems, as native birds compete with newcomers for food and nesting sites.

Moreover, altered weather patterns, like increased frequency and intensity of storms, are directly threatening birds. Severe weather events can destroy habitats, reduce food availability, and hinder breeding success. Coastal birds are particularly vulnerable, as rising sea levels and storm surges erode nesting sites.

Changes in seasonal cycles are also affecting birds. Earlier springs and later autumns disrupt the timing of food availability, particularly insects, which many bird species rely on for feeding their young. This mismatch between breeding times and food peak can lead to lower survival rates for fledglings.

Finally, climate change exacerbates other threats to birds, such as habitat loss and pollution. As natural habitats are altered or destroyed by climate-related factors, birds lose their homes and food sources. Pollution, intensified by climate change effects like warmer waters, further contaminates their habitats.

Overall, climate change poses a multi-faceted threat to bird populations, challenging their survival in rapidly changing environments. At the current rate, they’re going to need a lot more help from bird feeders very soon just to survive.

The full study was published in the journal People and Nature.

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