Why planting a garden is better for bird-watching than filling a feeder

March 12, 2018, 11:06 a.m.

One of the most popular pastimes in the United States is bird-watching. The way millions of Americans participate is by placing a feeder in the backyard and waiting for the various species to arrive. While this has a few upsides — including being easy and creating a stationary place to watch the activity — backyard bird feeders also have downsides, including attracting unwanted critters from raccoons to coyotes to bears, to providing a small range of food to a small group of birds, with much of it getting wasted when it's left scattered on the ground.

Another major downside to bird feeders is the spread of avian diseases from wild birds.

The Zoological Society of London released 25 years of data showing that bird feeders can promote the transfer of diseases between birds by "encouraging birds to repeatedly congregate in the same location, often bringing them into regular contact with other species they wouldn’t otherwise interact with so closely in the wider environment."

The study doesn't suggest people have to necessarily throw away their bird feeders. “We’re calling on everyone who feeds wild birds to be aware of their responsibilities for preventing disease," said study co-author Kate Risely. "Simple steps we’d recommend include offering a variety of food from accredited sources; feeding in moderation, so that feeders are typically emptied every 1-2 days; the regular cleaning of bird feeders; and rotation of feeding sites to avoid accumulation of waste food or bird droppings."

Gardens attract diversity

If you prefer to just avoid bird feeders, there's another way to take part in feeding birds that still allows you to watch the action from your home. It takes more work, but the efforts pay off for you and for a range of wildlife.

Visiting his parents over the summer, nature photographer Andrew Snyder aimed his camera at animals of the feathered variety, all while enjoying his parents' version of a better bird feeding.

"Most of the property these days is covered in gardens, full of so many different flowers that attract all sorts of wildlife so the subjects are plentiful," says Snyder. "These goldfinches have been a staple at our property for as long as I can remember. Everyday, groups of them venture down to dine on the seeds of coneflowers and sunflowers."

Having a bird-friendly garden has a few "pros" over simply placing a feeder in the yard. You end up planting a wider diversity of plants and thus attract a wider diversity of not only birds but also insects such as butterflies and bees, which then attract even more different types of birds; for those who like to photograph their backyard birds, you have a wider variety of perches and backdrops with a beautiful, natural look to them; and you have birds that are comfortable with people moving about the garden.

"While still flighty, these birds have become habituated to constant activity around the gardens, whether it is human or canine. I was working at the kitchen table when I saw a few males feeding in the garden and decided to grab my camera and 300mm and sneak outside. As I slowly walked down the ramp, snapping a few images during the process, this male didn't seem to mind my presence, though kept a watchful eye," Snyder says.

"I slowly approached and made it to the point where I was able to hide most of myself behind a large magnolia tree trunk and set up this shot. This individual was very intent on picking all of the seeds in this echinacea flower and stayed at the same flower for a few minutes. This allowed me to adjust my shooting angle a few times to try to get the cleanest, most colorful background full of black-eyed Susan flowers."

It's an even more rewarding and beautiful experience to watch birds feed in a more natural environment than at a feeder — in no small part because you get to enjoy being in the beauty of the garden you created while watching the birds feeding among the flowers.

Even if you have a postage stamp of a yard, you can create a bird-feeding paradise. To create your own garden to attract birds, check out these articles:

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Editor's note: This photo of the day has been updated since it was originally published in August 2015.