Study: People Who Feed Wild Birds Notice and Respond to Nature in Their Backyards

Backyard bird feeding is a popular form of human-wildlife interaction in certain regions of the northern and southern hemisphere including North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Given its scale, it can have profound consequences for the ecology of feeder birds and their behavior. In a new study, researchers from Virginia Tech, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the University of Georgia examined the association between peoples’ observations at their backyard feeders and their emotions and behaviors related to providing food to birds. The findings, published in the journal People and Nature, suggest that people who feed birds observe aspects of nature and respond in ways that may affect outcomes of feeding on wild birds.

A dark-eyed junco, an American goldfinch, and a house finch feed on sunflower seeds on a snowy day. Image credit: Cynthia Raught.

A dark-eyed junco, an American goldfinch, and a house finch feed on sunflower seeds on a snowy day. Image credit: Cynthia Raught.

“Given that so many people are so invested in attracting birds to their backyard, we were interested in what natural changes they observe at their feeders beyond simply more birds,” said lead author Dr. Ashley Dayer, of Virginia Tech.

“In particular, we wanted to know how they respond to their observations. For example, how do they feel if they see sick birds at their feeders, and what actions do they take to address these observations?”

Using a survey of 1,176 people who feed birds and record their observations of birds in the database of the Project FeederWatch, a program managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Dr. Dayer and colleagues found that most people noticed natural changes in their backyards that could be due to feeding, including an increase in the number of birds at their feeders, a cat or hawk near their feeders, or a sick bird at their feeders.

“More and more, we see that humans are interacting less with nature and that more of our wildlife are being restricted to areas where there are humans around,” said senior author Dr. Dana Hawley, of Virginia Tech.

“Looking at how humans react to and manage wildlife in their own backyards is very important for the future of wildlife conservation and for understanding human well-being as the opportunities for people to interact with wildlife become more restricted to backyard settings.”

“From my 17 years working with people who feed birds as part of citizen science projects, I’ve heard a great deal about their impactful observations at their feeders. This study provides important information about the breadth and pattern of these experiences through responses of over 1,000 participants,” said co-author Dr. David Bonter, director of citizen science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

The people who feed birds also responded, particularly to cats at their feeders, by scaring off the cats, moving feeders, or providing shelter for birds.

When observing sick birds, most people cleaned their feeders.

When observing more birds, people often responded by providing more food.

Fewer people acted in response to seeing hawks; the most common response to this was providing shelter for the feeder birds.

These human responses were, in some cases, tied to peoples’ emotions about their observations, particularly anger.

While cats near feeders most commonly evoked anger, sick birds led to sadness or worry. Emotions in response to hawks were more varied.

One surprising result that the team found was that when deciding how much to feed birds, people prioritized natural factors, such as cold weather, more than time and money.

Most people believed that the effects of their feeding on wild birds was primarily good for birds, even though many observed and took action in response to natural events in their backyard that could impact the health of the birds and might partly result from their feeding.

“Overall, our results suggest that people who feed birds observe aspects of nature and respond in ways that may affect outcomes of feeding on wild birds,” Dr. Dayer said.

“More work is needed to fully understand the positive and negative effects of feeding on wild birds and, thereby, the people who feed them.”

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Ashley A. Dayer et al. Observations at backyard bird feeders influence the emotions and actions of people that feed birds. People and Nature, published online March 25, 2019; doi: 10.1002/pan3.17

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