Do Birds Become Dependent on Feeders in the Winter?
"I heard that if I start feeding birds in the winter, I can't stop because the birds become dependent on me. Is this true?"
A common misconception about bird feeding is that once you start, you can't just suddenly stop because the birds have become dependent on the food and end up starving when the food source is removed. This myth is particularly brought up during the winter months, which people often think is the harshest time of the year for birds.
The truth is that you can feed and stop feeding birds at any time throughout the year. Feeders (not just yours, but all the feeders a bird may visit in its vast feeding territory) make up only a small portion of a bird's diet - usually no more than 10% of its daily intake. Natural foods (plant seeds and fruits, nuts, invertebrates, etc.) make up the majority of what a bird eats to survive. Winter is actually a time of bounty in some regards, since many plants produce fruit, seeds, acorns, or nuts in the fall and birds can typically make use of this supply throughout the winter. In fact, winters with numerous thaws in between snowfalls often result in a decrease of bird activity at feeders, as the birds focus on feeding upon plentiful natural food sources.
It is important to remember that birds are mobile creatures that are used to natural food supplies which appear and disappear all the time. Because of this, birds do not suddenly starve if a food supply, whether it is a berry bush or a bird feeder, runs empty. They just move on to the next food source.
That being said, there are times when bird feeders do certainly help birds during the winter. Extended periods of time with extreme cold temperatures (10 degrees or lower), deep snowfall without thaws, or ice that coats food sources can make it difficult for birds. In these instances, a full feeder may indeed increase a bird's chance of survival. For example, a 3-year study of winter survival of chickadees in Wisconsin revealed that birds who did not visit bird feeders survived as well as those who relied on human handouts - with one exception. When winter temperatures dropped below 10 degrees during the day, chickadees who had access to black oil sunflower seeds from feeders almost doubled their survival rate compared to those chickadees who did not receive the supplemental handouts.
Luckily (for us and the birds), these types of weather conditions are often the exception instead of the norm. The primary reason we feed birds is so that we can enjoy their beauty up close. We invite you to feed and enjoy the birds whenever you can, but do not fret when the feeders run empty; the birds will be fine.