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SPECIAL REPORT: Are You Killing Your Birds With Kindness?

Are You Killing Your Birds With Kindness?

Q. Years ago, I was a guest speaker at an entomology Conference when an audience member asked a question that I'm sure many of us had previously pondered: "What good are mosquitoes? What purpose do they serve?" My first thought was, like many predators and parasites, they eliminate the weakest members of a species and thus increase the overall health of the herd.

But I did not win the big money on Jeopardy that day, as the researcher's answer went in a very different direction: "Without mosquitoes", he calmly replied. "the vast majority of songbirds would become extinct." Of course! Take away the prey and the predator must also fall! Talk about being hit in the face with a condensed custard crème pie of reality! And then I thought "dragonflies too!"; they're the prime controller of mosquito numbers! (SO much that one of their common names is 'the mosquito hawk'.)

That exchange led to a lot of articles about natural mosquito control; a big part of which was making sure that local birds had plenty of shelter and fresh water, with nesting boxes for the most carnivorous bird families a plus. This tied nicely into my seemingly one-man crusade against feeding birds in the summertime. Even since my magazine ORGANIC GARDENING had run a lengthy article on birds vs bugs, I had become convinced that bird feeders were counterproductive to the cause.

The simplest argument goes something like this: if you artificially feed your birds in the summer, they won't bother chasing down their natural prey: big fat moths for larger carnivores; gnats, mosquitoes, no-see-ums and such for the swifter, smaller ones. The more bird feeders you hang and fill, the worse the damage to your crops that season because your best insect eaters are busy chowing down at the sunflower bar and bill! And one of the things that worried me most about that equation was that it could be twisted around and cited by agricultural chemical criminals as evidence that natural controls don't work.

I presented my argument many times in the pages of ORGANIC GARDENING and every time I made such a plea, it went over like a Mother's Day card in an orphanage. "I love watching my birds!" "I spend hours every day watching dozens of birds at my feeder!" And the frequent, but erroneous, statement: "Because of climate change there isn't enough food in the wild for them!"

Which is nonsense, of course; but nonsense seems to be very much in vogue these days. The only people I could manage to convince somewhat were Little Old Ladies who had watched Mary Poppins a hundred or so too many times and loved to spend their days in the park feeding stale chunks of bread to the birdies. Bad enough to feed them at all, I explained, but stale white bread contains less nutrition than the paper bag The Little Old Ladies carried the bread around in!

But such easy pickins will always attract dumb animals like pigeons, mice, rats and people who refuse to be vaccinated; and so, they fill up on these empty calories and essentially starve to death with full bellies.

I also ranted against bird feeders because their spillage would attract mice, rats, voles, Evil Squirrels and racoons, maybe even that vegan couple next door. Oh, and The Humane Society recently chipped in by warning that if fed by humans, baby birds would lose their instinct to find food in the wild (food that is AMAZINGLY abundant in the Spring and Summer) if fed by humans. But there is this unique human trait that allows people to ignore several levels of reality if the topic involves something they REALLY want to do.

But then, a tragic miracle occurred. A secondary argument emerged from researchers that feeders had the potential to become disease vectors. Seed that got wet became moldy, harboring God-knows-what kinds of nasty organisms; the birds were crowded into an unnaturally small space, a surefire way to spread disease quickly; and then there's The Poop Factor (TPF), when wet moldy seeds are topped with lots of bird poop.

Looking back on it, it's hard to imagine disease NOT making a special guest appearance It has. And it's name is Salmonellosis, a member of the dread salmonella family that is responsible for so many grocery store recalls. With birds the symptoms are horrifying: From the Pacific Northwest and Canada across to New Jersey and affecting every state in between, homeowners are horrified to find dead and diseased birds in and around their feeders. Some of the birds are blind in both eyes, with one eye protruding out of its socket. Some display neurological symptoms, falling over with eyes swollen shut and crusty; some have protruding eyes; and some are just plain blind. The disease seems to affect most--if not all---varieties of songbirds.

So do your part. Wearing gloves, take down your feeders, clean them well, soak all parts with plain white vinegar and store them where birds can't get at them. Then wash your hands thoroughly. Same with any birdbaths you have out; lots of bird poop in that water. Going forward, select plants that provide food and shelter so that you can continue watching--SAFELY!

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