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Laura Erickson: Feeding birds entails serious responsibilities

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Nest_660x440
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Cumberland, Wisconsin, August 2015, by Mary Metzger.

This winter, a wolf killed a golden retriever in a popular park on the edge of Duluth. The dog was off leash, so wolf conservationists blamed the owner. Others called for trapping and killing every wolf anywhere near the city. One tragedy begets more.

As a dog owner whose dogs have run off leash in that very park, I can only imagine the owner’s anguish. I live about a mile away, and my yard is fenced in, but it would be easy for a wolf to jump the fence — the white-tailed deer in my neighborhood certainly do.

Pip, my dog, weighs less than seven pounds. She could be picked off by a wolf, coyote, fox, bobcat, raccoon, or fisher, and a single kick by a deer could kill her. Moreover, our house sits on a migration path followed by hawks. An eagle could carry her off. She’s too heavy for a Red-tailed Hawk or Great Horned Owl to manage in flight, but it’d be easy enough for one of them to kill and eat her in place. We never let her outside alone at night, and even by day, I stay near the window while she’s in the yard.

Whether we live in urban or rural areas, most of us love seeing wildlife near our homes, and those of us with bird feeders actively invite wildlife to our backyards. But we hardly intend that as a blanket invitation. It’s tricky enough to discourage pigeons and House Sparrows, which pose no direct threat to our pets or us, but feeders also attract skunks, squirrels, rabbits, deer, and bears. All that activity draws in predators, from tiny hawks to foxes and coyotes. They put birds, our pets, and even us in some danger, and the mammals may be labeled “nuisance animals” and killed.

As our lives grow more and more disconnected from the natural world, being able to look out our window to see birds makes bird feeding more and more important.

But feeding birds entails serious responsibilities: Keeping feeding stations clean to prevent disease. Shutting them down when a sick bird shows up or where cats prowl. Excluding starlings and House Sparrows, which harm native birds and don’t need subsidies. Making our windows safer to prevent collisions. These steps and others ensure that we’re not luring birds to their deaths.

We must also be mindful of other animals drawn to our feeders, and make the sacrifice and stop feeding when skunks, raccoons, bears, or other animals that may harm neighborhood pets or humans show up. The dog killing at the Duluth park was hardly associated with bird feeding, but as deer and rabbits concentrate in urban habitats, savvy wolves are sure to follow.


This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of BirdWatching magazine. 

Five more columns by Laura Erickson

Nests in your yard are delightful, most of the time.

Steps to take to keep backyard water features safe for birds.

Dealing with the smart and spirited Blue Jay.

How planting a tree can ensure a brighter future.

Why I’m drawn to Cedar Waxwings.


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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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