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The "conventional wisdom" has always been that you should feed wild birds in winter because their normal source of food - small seeds and insects - has dramatically diminished. But is the conventional wisdom correct? By attracting birds to our feeders, are we making them too dependent on a free source of food, and weakening their ability to find food on their own? Do we actually put birds at greater risk because of cats and flying into windows?
These are not easy questions to answer because there has been little research into the subject. However a three-year study of chickadees by the University of Wisconsin found that winter survival rates were highest among chickadee populations that were fed, but only during the harshest winters. During more moderate winters (and lower latitudes) there were no significant differences in survival rates and spring hatching rates between chickadees that were fed and those that foraged for themselves.
What if the feeders are removed? Can chickadees remember how to find food on their own? In a similar study, feeders were suddenly removed after conditioning the birds to feeders for many years. The birds immediately resumed feeding on their own. Again, survival rates were the same as for chickadees that were not used to feeders. While more research needs to be done, these studies indicate that feeding chickadees - and presumably, other wild birds - does not result in feeder dependency.
Some argue that feeders put birds at risk because of the presumed greater risk of predation. However, birds that eat from feeders eat more in less time than if they forage in the wild, giving them more time to watch for predators. You can minimize the risk to birds at your feeder by placing feeders where they are inaccessible by cats, and by adding tape or decals to your windows so birds won't fly into them.
The conclusions we can draw are that feeding wild birds in winter - or not - does no harm to their survival and spring hatching rates. So with winter coming soon, get your feeders in shape, and enjoy your birds!