Wall Street Journal Bird Feeding Article
(Last revised January 8, 2003) (reproduced with
New York Times, January 2, 2003, has an article about
studies establishing that global warming is shifting the ranges and
changing migration patterns for many species. The studies were conducted
by researchers at the University of Texas, Wesleyan, Stanford and elsewhere,
and are published in the January 2 issue of Nature.
The Wall Street Journal has denied for years that global warming even
exists. Is this the reason the WSJ published this baseless article about
bird feeding on their front page last week, just in time to deflect
attention and even shift the blame for these changes?
The original article is shown on this page in regular typeface, indented. My response
is in bold.
Mr. Sterba sent me an e-mail regarding this, saying, in full, "I
saw your response and, while you make some valid points, find it packed
with many of the same distorting techniques you accuse me of plying."
I responded, "Name one." While we're waiting to hear from him,
you be the judge.
This is a long article. You can go directly to paragraphs here:
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(17) (18) (19) (20)
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American Backyard Feeders May Do Harm
to Wild Birds
Feeding Wild Birds Lures Pests, Predators, Causing Illness and Distorting Populations
By JAMES P. STERBA
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET
December 27, 2002 front page article
Millions of Wall Street Journal readers don't have time to read all
the articles. Consider the headlines the busy reader will see in the print version
of this article: "Crying Fowl; Feeding Wild Birds May Harm Them And Environment;
It Lures Pests, Causes Illnesses; Changing the Relationship Between Man and
Nature;" "A Booming Business in Seeds." "Backyard Bird Feeders
May Also Cause Harm." Putting this on the front page adds to the alarmist
nature of this piece. Scientists must have just discovered something horrible
about bird feeding! Except they didn't.
he write this story, when most Wall Street Journal stories about birds are by
a writer who actually knows her subject, Marie Winn? Just wondering...
(1) Last year, Americans spent $2.6 billion on birdseed.
That's more than twice as much as they spent on prepared baby food, and two
and a half times as much as they spent on food for needy nations. They shelled
out a further $733 million on feeders, houses and baths for birds.
This paragraph is specifically written to set up a case that bird feeding
is a waste of money in comparison to more important priorities. But to put their
statistics in perspective, the amount given for total seed sales is also less
than one tenth of the $38.7 billion American spent on gambling in 2001, and
less than a third of the $9.4 billion spent on video games in 2001.
Bird seed expenditures are also less than 1% of last year's U.S.
Defense Department budget of $291 billion. Also, in 2000, American manufacturers
signed weapons contracts for just under $18.6
billion, over seven times the money devoted to seed sales.
There were 4,025,933 babies born in 2001 (National
Center for Health Statistics). Assuming $1 billion is spent on baby food
(and notice that the WSJ statistic does not include baby formula), this amounts
to $248 per baby spent last year. Considering that most nutrition experts recommend
that babies receive healthy foods processed at home, and that many one-year-olds
are receiving a lot of basic adult foods (oatmeal, mashed vegetables, etc.)
rather than food items specifically prepared for babies, comparing bird seed
sales to baby food sales is meaningless. And individuals who feed birds often
support government programs, such as providing food for needy nations, that
neither the Wall Street Journal nor the U.S. government current administration
What purpose can James P. Sterba have in opening his case by comparing
money spent on bird feeding to that spent on baby food and for needy nations?
Is he trying to make those of us who love backyard birds feel guilty? Does he
devote his own discretionary income that would otherwise be spent on his own
hobbies to baby food and on needy nations? And what babies are we supposed to
be buying baby food for, anyway?
(2) Most people think all that largess helps the birds. But
many ornithologists and wildlife biologists say it does very little good --
and even does some harm. Attracting wild birds to feeders spreads disease,
aids predators such as house cats, and lures the birds close to houses and
roads where tens of millions of them fly into windows and cars. House cats
and hawks treat feeders as fast-food outlets, snatching birds from perches
or the ground below.
"Many ornithologists and wildlife biologists" is an empty
phrase when none are named. There is little doubt that the Black-capped Chickadee
and Northern Cardinal populations have increased thanks to bird feeding, and
feeding has helped Rufous Hummingbirds to survive winters in the United States
as Mexican deforestation accelerates. One letter writer to the Contra-Costa
Times writes this:
BIRD FEEDING IS OK
I appreciated your Sunday
column regarding the Wall Street Journal article on bird feeding.
Although I have done a fair bit of research on waterfowl, I don't
claim to be an authority on songbirds. I would just like to point out that
an issue that was completely ignored is the condition of birds at the beginning
of the breeding season.
Research on waterfowl is in some respects easier because today we
can do telemetry studies as well as banding studies. We know that birds that
reach the breeding grounds in good condition will have greater reproductive
success. If the backyard feeding of songbirds allows them to return to the
nesting areas in better condition, this can easily offset any mortality caused
by cats or other predators. (Don Anthrop, professor, environmental studies,
San Jose State University)
As far as problems, diseases are occasionally spread when birds or
other animals are concentrated in a small area, but this is hardly front page
news. Bird feeding books have discussed the issue for decades. Yet the biggest
documented cases of disease outbreaks, such as botulism, have occurred where
birds are concentrated naturally, such as in major duck migration staging areas.
In my more than a decade serving as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, I was
brought no birds at all that had developed a disease at a feeder. It's simply
not a significant issue.
The dangers from house cats are real, both at and away from feeders.
Indeed, the largest single cat-kill I've ever observed was in my Duluth neighborhood
during a cold spell one early October, when Yellow-rumped Warblers were grounded
in large numbers. I found 27 dead warblers, all killed by a single cat, in a
one-block area when walking my little boy to kindergarten. These were not at
a feeder. Cats belong indoors, period. And when they kill birds, their owners
are to blame, not people feeding birds. Perhaps Mr. Sterba is planning on writing
an article soon on the compelling reasons for cities and towns to pass cat leash
ordinances. He can find plenty of information from the American
The only figure in this paragraph, "tens of millions" of
birds flying into windows and cars, is not at all related to bird feeding. Although
some feeder birds do hit windows, the vast majority of window-killed birds are
nocturnal migrants flying into lighted buildings at night, and low-flying birds
of all kinds hitting picture windows. One of the most commonly killed birds
at windows is the Ovenbird, yet this warbler is not attracted to feeding stations.
Hawks do take advantage of feeding stations, as they do of other places where
birds congregate, but since they, too, are birds, this doesn't take away from
the point of feeding birds.
Some finches, sparrows, and other seed-eaters are attracted to roadsides
for grit or salt. Scavengers are often there to feed upon other road-killed
animals. And a great many road-killed birds are killed simply because they flew
across the road at the wrong time. The decline of Red-headed Woodpeckers (a
species that very seldom visits feeders) is at least in part due to automobiles.
But none of these have anything to do with bird feeding. Again, perhaps Mr.
Sterba should devote an article to encouraging states to lower speed limits.
All the problems stated in this paragraph that actually are occasionally
associated with feeders can be, and usually are, addressed by the individuals
feeding birds. Most feeding stations are shut down if any birds show signs of
disease, and when predators are noticed, people often stop feeding until they
move on. It's fair to state that most ornithologists and wildlife
biologists would agree that feeding birds is a fairly neutral activity as far
as bird populations go (except for the aforementioned chickadees, cardinals,
and hummingbirds). There are many documented cases of hunting destroying bird
populations, and none for bird feeding destroying populations, yet hunting is
permitted even for some dangerously declining species, such as Canvasbacks and
Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens, because hunting is considered a legitimate
use of wildlife. So, too, is bird feeding, and it's an utterly benign hobby
enjoyed by millions, from scouts (building a bird feeder and maintaining it
is still a Boy Scout Merit Badge project) to housebound elderly people.
(3) Birdseed attracts other mammals, too, and not just squirrels.
Chipmunks, rats, raccoons, skunks and even bears feed on seed at night. That
in turn prompts bird-loving homeowners to summon companies that trap or kill
the intruders. "People who feed birds are our best customers," says
Alan Huot, who runs Nuisance Wildlife Services, an animal-control concern
in Simsbury, Conn.
Raccoons, skunks, and bears are also attracted to gardens, fallen apples
from backyard fruit trees, and to garbage cans, town dumps, and other places
where they can feed on wastes from us humans. This is more due to the fact that
we are encroaching on natural habitat, taking over the natural homes of these
species and eliminating their natural sources of food, than that feeders are
attracting them. Bears have visited my own neighborhood in Duluth, Minnesota,
for example, but not once have they come to my feeders! They invariably climb
up in someone's apple tree and pig out.
Rats are a far worse problem in the alley in my sister-in-law's Chicago
home, where no one feeds birds, than they are at any feeding station I've ever
heard of. And chipmunks simply do NOT feed on seed at night. They are there
in the daytime along with squirrels. I suspect they are included in the list
simply to bulk it up.
(4) Feeding birds is essentially a form of wildlife management
-- yet another way that human beings, whether intentionally or not, impose
their will upon nature. In many areas of the U.S., human actions have brought
man and beast into closer proximity than ever before. The consequences of
letting nature run wild are being felt far and wide: Skunks in the garbage.
Squirrels in the attic. Moose on Main Street. While many species decline,
those adapted to living with people are increasing their numbers.
Bird feeding, like hunting, is a form of wildlife USE, not management
per se. As Mr. Sterba's paragraph establishes, it is the close proximity to
nature, as people take over more and more habitat, that causes skunks in the
garbage, squirrels in the attic, and moose on Main Street. There are no bird
feeders in the garbage, in the attic, or on Main Street. And is anyone other
than I troubled by his fear of "letting nature run wild"? Isn't that
precisely what nature should do?
(5) Now, the hands-off approach to nature that grew out of
the environmental movement of the 1960s is increasingly giving way to calls
for the hands-on wildlife management pioneered by the likes of Teddy Roosevelt
and the conservation movement of a century ago. The idea of killing wild animals
to bring populations into healthy balance is gaining ground again. Unlikely
alliances have formed. A coalition of birders and trappers, worried about
fox and feral cat predators threatening birds in California, recently beat
back efforts by animal-rights groups to ban trapping as cruel. The Audubon
Society is calling for more hunting. And local governments, defying animal-welfare
constituents, are hiring sharpshooters to control deer populations.
The conservation efforts of a century ago, including those of Teddy
Roosevelt, a passionate hunter who was very concerned about over-hunting, were
focused on preserving habitat by creating National Wildlife Refuges and National
Parks, protecting wetlands, and limiting hunts when species were in decline.
Wildlife management efforts never specifically used hunting to decrease populations
except via bounties when certain species, such as wolves or magpies, were considered
pests for agriculture. The one exception was that there was a period of time
in the 30's when elk were managed in part through hunting in and around Yellowstone,
only necessary because humans had removed the natural top-level predators.
Wildlife management by Theodore Roosevelt was intended to protect species
so that hunting would not wipe out more animals, as it had the Passenger Pigeon
and Heath Hen, nor decimate populations as it had bison, Wood Ducks, etc. Deer
overpopulation is directly due to the destruction of much of the mature forest
habitat throughout the country and current forestry practices as more and more
woodlots and forests are cut on shorter and shorter rotation cycles, promoting
the young growth and aspens on which deer thrive.
Absolutely nothing in this paragraph is pertinent
to the issue of bird feeding, and none of it supports Mr. Sterba's baseless
(6) The blurring of the boundary between man and beast can
be traced to the regrowth of forests once cleared by pioneers and farmers.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, 63% of the land east of the Mississippi
that was forest in 1630, and then was cleared, is forest once again. In the
Northeast, 72% of the forest is back, and increasingly so are the animals
of that forest: bears, beavers, turkeys and moose among them.
Most of what passes for "forest land" in the east now is
not the mature forest found in the days before Columbus arrived. And bears,
beavers, and moose are found more in disturbed and young forests than mature
ones. Turkeys are back because of extensive reintroduction programs by hunting
groups and State Departments of Natural Resources. This is a grossly misleading
paragraph. And it's irrelevant, too.
(7) The farmers are largely gone, too. They not only worked
the land, but also vigorously managed the wildlife on it by shooting, trapping
and otherwise killing wild birds and animals that threatened their crops and
livestock. In their place: suburbanites, whose encroachment -- and in some
cases whose political opposition to hunting and trapping -- has removed millions
of acres of wildlife habitat from traditional control by state fish and game
The willy-nilly shooting that many of Mr. Sterba's farmers did in earlier
centuries decimated some wildlife populations. For example, many farmers shot
ALL hawks passing over, whether or not a particular species of hawk was capable
of hunting their livestock or not. They hunted many duck species, cranes, Trumpeter
Swans, and other birds to the point of extirpation. This was not the idyllic
and benevolent "wildlife management" that the writer waxes nostalgic
for. Also, is he proposing that hunters and trappers be allowed to hunt and
trap in suburbia?
The wildlife habitat he seems to be mourning was farmland. The loss
of small farmers to the huge agricultural industry of today is, indeed, a tragic
one. But the loss of farmland is not the same as the loss of wetlands and mature
(8) Sprawl dwellers had another important role. With their
handouts of food, they helped create huge populations of so-called welfare
Nothing like throwing in a politically loaded catchword like "welfare."
(9) Enter bird feeders. The majority of people who feed wild
birds live in the eastern part of the country. What started as a winter activity
in cold areas spread to warm climes. According to a survey done for Gutwein
& Co., which sells Morning Song brand bird food, 83% of those who feed
birds do so year-round, half are over the age of 40, and 44% are empty nesters,
as it were. Two-thirds of birdseed buyers are women.
What, precisely was the purpose of this paragraph other than to dismiss
older Americans, empty nesters, and women, and to make another effort to trivialize
bird feeding? (Also, the fact that two-thirds of birdseed buyers are women is
a meaningless statistic, since women do virtually all the shopping in many households.)
(10) And they are putting lots of food into the wildlife
environment, anywhere from 500,000 tons to 1.2 million tons annually, according
to industry estimates, which vary widely. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
says 52.8 million adults identified themselves as bird feeders in a survey
last year. This number surpasses the nation's 34.1 million fishermen and 13
How does this compare with the total amount of natural food in the
wildlife environment? I wonder how many tons of lead shot and lead sinkers,
and how many tons of pesticides, are placed into the wildlife environment each
year? The fleet of American-made cars for the 2000-model year contain 10,000
pounds of mercury in their light switches. (Foreign-made cars phased out all
mercury by 1995.) Coal-burning power plants spew mercury into the air and water.
Can we expect a front page article in the Wall Street Journal about lead, pesticides,
or mercury and their far more serious impacts on birds any time soon?
(11) The wide popularity of bird feeding favors a relatively
small subset of birds that frequent the feeders or the ground below them where
spilled seed falls, says David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest research
project of Harvard University. The practice also favors seed-eating mammals,
and predators such as cats and hawks.
Bird feeding favors species that eat seeds. Predators drawn to feeders
are equally drawn to other places where birds are found. Hawks that pick up
an occasional meal at a bird feeder are, in fact, birds. Cats belong indoors
or leashed. Unfortunately, Brown-headed Cowbirds frequent feeders, and this
is one species that should be discouraged. The impact of cowbirds on bird populations
is indeed harmful to small songbirds because it is a nest parasite. Mr. Sterba
left it out of his discussion, but fairness requires that we mention it here.
There are several strategies, such as raking spilled seed up and using dangling
feeders, that discourage cowbirds.
(12) "By increasing the food supply, bird feeders encourage
the rapid growth of animal populations," says Stephen Vantassel, a wildlife
damage consultant in Massachusetts. Adds Bob Noonan, editor of trade magazine
WCT, which stands for Wildlife Control Technology: "The first thing I
tell people with nuisance-animal problems is that they have to remove these
artificial food sources."
Earlier Mr. Sterba specifically said that bird feeding didn't help
populations. Where is a single documented study indicating that bird feeding
has encouraged the rapid growth of any animal population? Even the increases
in chickadees and cardinals have been slow and steady.
The phrase "these artificial food sources" almost assuredly
refers to open garbage cans, scraps deliberately put out for other wildlife,
gardens, and other food sources as well as bird feeders. When there is a problem
associated with bird feeding, of course it is wise to close down that feeder.
And pest animals that visit feeders, such as rats, were an enormous problem
long before bird feeding became popular.
(13) 'Habitat Enhancement'
Pushing in the opposite direction is the bird-feeding industry, where the
hottest trend is "backyard habitat enhancement" to attract more
birds and wildlife, says Raymond David, who runs Birdwatch America, the industry's
trade show. The trend includes planting the right bushes, putting in natural-looking
ponds and landscaping -- all of which attract wild birds, but also other hungry
Backyard habitat enhancement, pushed since at least the 1970s by the
National Wildlife Federation (whose membership includes many hunters and anglers)
is hardly a bad thing. Learning to live with nature is a desirable goal, and
the fact that the Wall Street Journal believes otherwise shows a frightening
bias toward habitat destruction.
(14) Bob Heller, who owns the Wild Birds Unlimited franchise
in Duluth, Minn., says he sells a lot of bear-resistant bird feeders, including
one called "iron silo" that is made from cast iron. Still, he tells
people to bring their feeders in at night when it's not bear hibernating season.
This is evidence that the problem of bears visiting feeders is easily
dealt with by individuals. My mother-in-law, who is 83 years old and lives in
bear country, has been taking her feeders in at nighttime for years.
And this is what Bob Heller, an actual real-life friend of mine, wrote
about the interview with Mr. Sterba: "This fellow called me to and said
he was referred to me by Jim Carpenter, the owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited
Franchisor. He simply said he was doing an article about bears and bird feeders
- more than a little misleading in light of the trash he wrote."
(15) Like an African watering hole, a bird feeder brings
animals in close proximity, and this can spread illness. House-finch conjunctivitis,
an eye and respiratory disease first spotted in the eastern U.S. in the winter
of 1993, for example, has been spread virtually nationwide through feeders
infected by a well-known bacterium, Mycoplasma gallisepticum. The
disease causes the birds' eyes to get encrusted and swell shut. Most die of
starvation or predation. As a result, the house-finch population in the East
has declined an estimated 60% in the past decade, according to the Cornell
Laboratory of Ornithology.
An African watering hole is a natural site where birds and other wildlife
gather. Is Mr. Sterba advocating closing down every place where wildlife gathers?
Regarding the specific American case he discusses, the House Finch
is not a native bird in the eastern United States. Before the 1940s, there were
ZERO House Finches in the eastern United States. The entire population now in
existence arose from a handful of birds released from pet shops on Long Island
in the 1940s. Because all the eastern birds originated from a few individuals,
they lack genetic diversity, and so have been uniquely vulnerable to this disease.
Also, House Finches are a naturally flocking species, and associate in tight
groups at all times, at or away from feeders.
Since he quotes the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology here, let's see
what the Laboratory Director and the Program Director of Population Studies
at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology had to say about this in the Cornell
Laboratory of Ornithology response to the Wall Street Journal:
"Most egregious of Mr. Sterba's scientific miscues is his reference
to our demonstration that a disease caused 60% declines in some House Finch
populations in eastern North America (Density dependent decline of host abundance
resulting from a new infectious disease, by W. M. Hochachka and A. A. Dhondt,
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, vol. 97, pp. 5303-5306).
He failed to mention that the House Finch itself was introduced to the east
coast several decades ago. Explosive population growth of this highly gregarious
bird throughout eastern U.S. made the species unusually vulnerable to a common
bacterium, to which native bird species had long since become resistant. Bird
feeders may have accelerated the spread of House Finches, but our work suggests
that the Micoplasma epidemic would have spread even in the absence of bird
feeders. Disease prevalence increases most rapidly in late summer and fall,
when Houses Finches visit feeders only sporadically, and is lowest during
mid-winter, when finches visit feeders regularly. Most important, the epidemic
was not present among any native bird species common at bird feeders in the
same region during the same period, and has failed to spread in western North
America, where the House Finch itself was native. All animal populations are
controlled to some extent by disease, and it was only a matter of time before
the eastern House Finches would encounter this one."
Another important point that Mr. Sterba missed: This particular disease
was originally a disease of domestic turkeys. The poultry industry is directly
responsible for its spread, not bird feeding. Perhaps Mr. Sterba can look into
the problems the poultry industry has caused for wildlife next.
(16) "It's no different than kids in a kindergarten
class," says Paul Barrows, former head of the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps.
"If one brings a cold, they all can get it."
So apparently feeding birds is about as dangerous as sending your child
The truth is, birds often gather in groups. The expression "birds
of a feather flock together" existed long before bird feeding.
(17) Other diseases also are spread through infected feeders,
which people should disinfect with bleach every two weeks, but few do. Avian
pox causes body warts and breathing difficulties. Aspergillosis, a mold that
can form on old or damp seed, makes birds lose weight and have trouble breathing
and walking. Bird feces under feeders sometimes contain parasites and bacteria
that infect ground-feeding birds.
The two diseases he specifically cites occur in natural populations
of birds that never visit feeders as well as, occasionally, in feeder birds.
Again, most people who recommend feeding birds also give strict instructions
about keeping feeders clean, and warn that people should close down feeding
stations when a disease does erupt. How serious is the problem of disease at
feeders? Notice that Mr. Sterba gives absolutely no data about how often these
diseases are spread at feeders, nor about the numbers of people who DO use bleach
or otherwise clean their feeders. Notice that he hasn't quoted a single wildlife
rehabilitator who has dealt with birds who became sick at feeders. He's produced
no numbers, and no other evidence that disease spread is a serious or widespread
problem. The details of these bird illnesses have been available in bird feeding
books for decades. This is not front page news, nor is it a significant problem.
(18) Bird feeders also are suspected of contributing to
the large numbers of birds that die flying into windows of commercial and
residential buildings, estimated at anywhere from 98 million to nearly a billion
birds a year. A 1992 study by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology found
that window collisions caused 51% of backyard bird deaths, while cats accounted
for 36% and disease 11%. Birding groups urge people who feed birds to drape
their windows to prevent collisions, but this is a precaution that few take,
Notice how cleverly Mr. Sterba uses the Cornell study, which looked
at common causes of death in backyard birds. The study made no claims about
these deaths relating to bird feeders. And the numbers cited here include the
millions of birds killed at lighted buildings by nocturnal migrants, the millions
of birds killed at picture windows in homes with no feeders at all, and non-feeder
birds killed at windows. The cat-kill numbers and disease numbers also include
ALL birds killed by cats and disease, not just those at feeders. There is no
effort at all to distinguish, because windows, cats, and disease kill many more
birds away from feeders than the author wants his readers to think about. Mr.
Sterba's outrage might be more well placed against the plate-glass industry.
Also note that this study was in 1992. In 2000, the state of New York
picked up over 80,000 dead birds found in backyards and other places, and did
extensive necropsies on over 4,000 of them. They discovered that 48% of them
had died directly or indirectly from pesticides. I'd love to read about that
in the Wall Street Journal.
Since Mr. Sterba is quoting from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology,
it's only fair to see what they have to say about the use of them as a "source"
for this article. Read the Letter to the Wall Street
Journal by John W. Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., Director, and Andre A. Dhondt, Ph.D.,
Program Director, Bird Population Studiesof the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
They say, "Although he quoted figures from the Cornell studies of backyard
bird mortality, Mr. Sterba missed two crucial point repeatedly emphasized by
the principal author of those studies (Dr. Erica Dunn, now at the Canadian Wildlife
Service, and widely considered to be among North America's leading experts on
bird population biology): "...bird feeding is not having a broad-scale
negative impact on bird populations" and "...bird feeding does not
cause mortality to rise above natural levels through exposing birds to unusual
danger from window collisions, disease, or predation" (both quotes from
p. 15 of Birds at Your Feeder by E.R. Dunn and D. L. Tessaglia-Hymes, Norton
and Co., 1999)."
(19) Some wildlife biologists worry that backyard bird feeders
may be creating populations of dependent wintering birds. There also are concerns
that feeders increase the numbers of nest predators such as grackles and blue
jays, and that they might be altering bird migration patterns. However, the
National Audubon Society says the few studies done in these areas suggest
that such worries are unwarranted.
Again, they do not give any names of those "wildlife biologists"
who worry without any evidence to support their fears. Grackles, cowbirds, and
other blackbirds are more subsidized by changes in winter wheat and other grain
production than by bird feeding. And what evidence is there that Blue Jay numbers
And consider the tacked-on reference to bird migration. Are we seriously
to believe that birdfeeding is altering migration patterns? On what evidence?
The Northern Cardinal has extended its range northward over the last century
as railroad right-of-ways and spilled grain, and then bird feeding, allowed
individuals to obtain food, and thus survive the winter further north. Cardinals
are a non-migratory species, and this simply allowed those individuals that
wandered north in their post-breeding movements to have a better chance of survival.
Recent changes in bird migration patterns in the US and Europe are due to something
the Wall Street Journal has been denying for over a decade, global warming.
The writer overlooks the report released in March 2002 by the American Bird
Conservancy and National Wildlife Federation, The
Birdwatcher's Guide to Global Warming. This authoritative document does
indicate that ranges have shifted northward for several species, specifically
listing seven warbler species (none of which are feeder birds) and Sooty Shearwater
(an oceanic bird), and that arrival dates have changed for 20 species, specifically
listing Black-throated Blue Warbler, Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, and Rose-breasted
Grosbeak. Only the grosbeak visits feeders, for only a small, almost negligible,
part of its food. And a brand new study published January 2, 2003, in Nature,
shows that the problem is real, and very serious.
The omission of these pertinent facts is consistent with the WSJ's
strategy of denying climate change. Now they are apparently discrediting the
link between climate change and migration patterns by suddenly, with no evidence
whatsoever, placing the blame for migration pattern changes on bird feeding.
(20) Birdseed-industry officials acknowledge that disease,
predators and window collisions around feeders kill birds. But they argue
that the number of these deaths is tiny in comparison to the total number
of bird deaths. Bird-watching groups estimate that about half of all birds
hatched die each year.
Notice how weakly and patronizingly the article presents the opposing
(21) Hunting and trapping proponents note that the same
could be said in support of their activities, but political correctness usually
precludes this. "We could make the same argument," says Mr. Noonan,
the magazine editor who is also a fur trapper in Canaan, Maine. "We remove
surplus animals that are going to die over the winter."
Many hunters and trappers feed birds. Birding and hunting are hardly
mutually exclusive. Where did this straw man come from? Sounds like an effort
to pit bird watchers against hunters, and to throw out another loaded term,
(22) The idea of selling seed to people to feed birds grew
out of the livestock-feed business. One of these, Knauf & Tesch, a general
store for dairy farmers in Chilton, Wisc., began selling bags of dried peas
for racing pigeons in the late 19th century. In the 1940s, William Engler,
the proprietor of Knauf & Tesch, got together with Simon Wagner of Wagner
Bros. Feed Corp. in New York to package 25-pound bags of birdseed to sell
at grocery stores.
Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson set out food for birds, so
bird feeding was in existence long before any industry got involved. And food
for racing pigeons was hardly intended for wild birds--these birds are fed in
their lofts. This is just plain sloppy research and reporting.
(23) Bird-Loving Boomers
Bird feeding took off in the 1980s and 1990s as baby boomers and their offspring
sought to connect to nature in environmentally acceptable ways. A sizable
industry developed because it is an easy and inexpensive way to watch birds,
and because most people who feed birds think their hobby is benign, or even
helpful to the birds.
Well, that could just be because bird feeding IS typically benign,
and at least as far as the chickadee and cardinal populations go, even somewhat
helpful to the birds.
(24) George Fenwick, president of the American Bird Conservancy,
a conservation group, says there are dangers associated with bird feeding.
But he says the positives for people -- getting them back to nature, into
bird watching and for conservation -- outweigh the negatives.
How could any reasonable person deny that there are dangers associated
with bird feeding? There are dangers associated with baby formula, infant vaccinations,
going to the hospital, driving a car, fighting a war with Iraq. Reasonable people
assess the possible dangers and the likelihood of those dangers actually occurring,
and then weigh the potential problems with the potential benefits. Bird feeding
has demonstrably helped some birds, and provides enormous benefits to human
beings. I have heard from hundreds of people who got solace from birds at their
feeders. People dying of cancer, people recovering from strokes, people alone
and isolated. Bird feeding is as valid and important a use of wildlife as hunting,
fishing, or photography.
(25) At the Millerton Agway gardening center in Millerton,
N.Y., birdseed virtually flies out of the store in wintertime, says manager
Paul O'Neil. Included in his stock are hundreds of pounds of bulk mixture,
seed-infused suet cakes, and specialty packets to attract specific species
of wild birds.
Sounds good to me.
(26) Especially popular for feeding finches is the niger
seed, a small black oilseed often misnamed as thistle. Americans import more
than 70 million pounds of it annually from Ethiopia, India, Nepal and Burma
as birdseed. Human-rights groups, calling Burma's military junta one of the
world's most oppressive regimes, have urged feeders to boycott niger seed.
Mr. O'Neil says he has seen no effect on sales.
Apparel makes up 86% of Burma's exports. Expecting people to give up
clothing is as logical a solution to Burma's human rights problems as expecting
people to give up bird feeding. Teak is another export from Burma, and purchasing
teak directly supports deforestation and habitat destruction. Birdseed makes
up only 2% of Burma's exports. Even if no one bought any niger seed from Burma,
it's unlikely it would have any effect except to the farmers growing it. (To
learn more, go to the Burma Project link at EarthRights
People who feed birds should certainly request, or even demand, that
the niger seed we buy come from countries other than Burma. But notice that
already the greatest source of niger seed is India, and that Ethiopia and Nepal
are also niger seed exporters.
(27) His best seller is sunflower seed, which many people
buy in 50-pound bags. Farmers in South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota
grow about two million acres of sunflowers, worth about $315 million, and
one-fourth of it goes to feed birds, according to the National Sunflower Association.
And this has put them in a quandary.
Each fall, red-winged blackbirds migrating south swoop down in giant flocks
on the ripening crop and cause up to $20 million in damage. Some farmers have
their entire crop wiped out. The industry is asking the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's Wildlife Services to come in and poison perhaps six million
blackbirds over three years. The National Audubon Society thinks killing red-winged
blackbirds to save seeds for bird-feeder birds is a dumb idea. An environmental-impact
statement is in the works.
The use of pesticides--insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and avicides--on
sunflower seed crops and, indeed, other food crops for humans, is a serious
and troubling issue. More than three fourths of the sunflower grown in these
states is grown for human consumption, so bird feeding is not the culprit. Farmers
have a right to protect their crops, but there are alternatives that they don't
bother with, thanks to the huge agribusiness conglomerates the Wall Street Journal
is so fond of. And the habitat destruction of agricultural lands has been exacerbated
by the huge farms that have displaced so many family farms. Again, the Wall
Street Journal doesn't seem to mind this development.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service denied the permits for the project Mr.
Sterba cited early in 2002. This specific project involved luring birds in during
spring migration to poisoned rice, and would have killed a wide variety of species
in addition to red-wings. And there was no evidence that the individual red-wings
passing through during the spring poisoning project were even from the same
population as those that feed on the sunflower seed crops in the fall. But notice
that these easily-found facts didn't support the author's case, so were conveniently
left out. Also notice that despite the losses to blackbirds, and despite the
fact that this specific poisoning project has been rejected, the statistics
in this article do support the truth that most sunflower seed survives blackbird
depradation and brings enormous profits to the National Sunflower Association's
growers. Perhaps the Wall Street Journal will do an indepth story about the
uses of pesticides in agriculture, and how insects and weeds have developed
resistances to them, so the amount of pesticides applied steadily increases.
Perhaps the Wall Street Journal would like to interview my sister, who has advanced
breast cancer, and my brother, who has kidney and prostate cancer, about the
potential impacts on humans of pesticide use.
Many people read the opening of an article, and then scan to the end.
Wasn't it clever of James P. Sterba or his editors to end this article about
bird feeding with the sentence, "An environmental-impact statement is in
For the Birds script, December 31, 2002
WHY This Front-Page "News"?
On December 27, 2002, The Wall Street Journal published a front-page article
about the perils of bird feeding titled, “Crying Fowl: Feeding Wild Birds
May Harm Them and Environment.” The article was rife with distortions
and outright misrepresentations of facts. On my web page,
I post a paragraph by paragraph refutation of the piece.
But what is far more troubling is why The Wall Street Journal would publish
such a lengthy fear-mongering piece on their front page, written by one of their
own staff writers. Why the sudden desire to discredit bird feeding?
Bird feeding has been a beloved pastime for Americans at least since Thoreau
and Emily Dickinson. Although bird feeding certainly has boosted the population
of Black-capped Chickadees and possibly of the eastern population of Rufous
Hummingbirds, it’s always been an activity more beneficial to people than
to birds. Over the years, I’ve heard from hundreds of people recovering
from chemotherapy and radiation treatments and convalescing after strokes who
took deep solace and comfort and hope from watching the birds at their feeders.
Rachel Carson wrote, “There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the
migration of the birds… There is something infinitely healing in the repeated
refrains of nature-the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after
the winter.” For people who are bedridden or housebound, the only opportunities
to experience those repeated refrains of nature often come at bird feeders.
The opportunity to view a hummingbird or chickadee inches away, to see that
amazing life force and loveliness at close range, is a blessing. The bond between
humans and nature is growing ever more tenuous in our increasingly urbanized
society. Bird feeders help maintain interest in birds, and help us notice when
some species of birds are in trouble. Why does The Wall Street Journal want
to discredit this?
The article focuses on disease outbreaks at feeders quite a bit. Although all
of the large disease outbreaks I’ve heard of among birds have taken place
in natural settings, such as when botulism erupts in small ponds and lakes,
the article makes disease sound like a common problem at feeders. Every book
advocating bird feeding that I know of has a section about keeping feeders clean
and closing down shop if a disease does occur, so it’s not like the possibility
of diseases being spread at a feeder is news, much less front page news. In
particular the Wall Street Journal article focuses on the conjunctivitis that
has spread so virulently among House Finches in the eastern United States. The
population has dropped 60% in the past decade, but that case is exceptional,
even unique. The total population of House Finches in the Eastern United States
before the 1940s was zero—House Finches are native to the arid southwestern
United States. Many were captured and sold as Hollywood Finches in eastern pet
shops during the late 1800s and early 1900s, and during a US Fish and Wildlife
Service raid on Long Island in the 40s, some pet shop owners tossed their finches
out the window. From that small handful the entire eastern House Finch population
arose, so there was very little genetic diversity. Although they were successful
at first, when disease struck, the entire population turned out to be vulnerable.
House Finches are a sociable species, gathering in tight flocks not only at
feeders but everywhere else. So it didn’t take long to reduce their numbers.
But blaming bird feeding is patently ridiculous. The bacterium itself is from
domesticated turkeys, so the turkey industry could far more legitimately be
blamed for the outbreak than bird feeding. Which again brings us to the question,
why does The Wall Street Journal suddenly want to discredit bird feeding?
The only answer I can think of is because people who feed birds grow to love
birds. And people who love birds notice and care when birds are in trouble.
People who feed birds have a vested interest in the survival of birds, and so
they care about habitat protection, pesticide reduction, and other issues involving
birds. Of course a newspaper that took a leading role in the movement to discredit
Rachel Carson in the 60s would want to limit the interest people take in a clean,
natural world teeming with wildlife now. That’s why The Wall Street Journal
wants to discredit bird feeding. And exactly as they did when trying to discredit
Rachel Carson, they use sly misrepresentations and distortions of facts to make
their case. Bird feeding is a legitimate use of wildlife, and those of us who
love the birds in our backyards have every right to continue to feed birds,
and enjoy them, and love them, and protect them. And that’s the truth.
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology's
Letter to the Wall Street Journal regarding this article:
Dear Wall Street Journal:
The meandering article by Mr. Sterba on purportedly negative effects of backyard
bird-feeding pointed out some interesting issues, and deserves praise for its
balanced treatment of the growing need for trapping and culling "wildlife"
such as feral cats and predator-liberated deer. However, the article was at
best patchy in its coverage of scientific questions involving bird-feeding and
failed to present any of the distinctly positive aspects of this growing hobby.
Although he quoted figures from the Cornell studies of backyard bird mortality,
Mr. Sterba missed two crucial point repeatedly emphasized by the principal author
of those studies (Dr. Erica Dunn, now at the Canadian Wildlife Service, and
widely considered to be among North America's leading experts on bird population
biology): "...bird feeding is not having a broad-scale negative impact
on bird populations" and "...bird feeding does not cause mortality
to rise above natural levels through exposing birds to unusual danger from window
collisions, disease, or predation" (both quotes from p. 15 of Birds at
Your Feeder by E.R. Dunn and D. L. Tessaglia-Hymes, Norton and Co., 1999).
Most egregious of Mr. Sterba's scientific miscues is his reference to our
demonstration that a disease caused 60% declines in some House Finch populations
in eastern North America (Density dependent decline of host abundance resulting
from a new infectious disease, by W. M. Hochachka and A. A. Dhondt, Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, vol. 97, pp. 5303-5306). He
failed to mention that the House Finch itself was introduced to the east coast
several decades ago. Explosive population growth of this highly gregarious bird
throughout eastern U.S. made the species unusually vulnerable to a common bacterium,
to which native bird species had long since become resistant. Bird feeders may
have accelerated the spread of House Finches, but our work suggests that the
Micoplasma epidemic would have spread even in the absence of bird feeders. Disease
prevalence increases most rapidly in late summer and fall, when Houses Finches
visit feeders only sporadically, and is lowest during mid-winter, when finches
visit feeders regularly. Most important, the epidemic was not present among
any native bird species common at bird feeders in the same region during the
same period, and has failed to spread in western North America, where the House
Finch itself was native. All animal populations are controlled to some extent
by disease, and it was only a matter of time before the eastern House Finches
would encounter this one. Mr. Sterba missed an even more important point about
the House Finch disease story: tens of thousands of interested citizens across
the country who enjoy nature by feeding birds are also contributing information
that allows us to study the natural dynamics of this infectious outbreak, plus
dozens of other key questions about North American bird populations (see http://birds.cornell.edu).
Indeed, the well-demonstrated scientific and educational potential of these
"citizen scientists" -- often using bird feeders as tools for monitoring
and teaching -- has prompted the National Science Foundation and the National
Institutes of Health to support several major research projects engaging the
general public in the process of studying daily, seasonal, and year-to-year
fluctuations in bird numbers. From their purely esthetical value in millions
of backyards, to their usefulness in building inquiry skills among classroom
students, to their applications in peer-reviewed, quantitative, environmental
monitoring, bird feeders present extraordinary connections between our human
culture and the natural world. To suggest that they are damaging because they
are also used by squirrels and chipmunks, or that they spread diseases that
reduce bird numbers, is to ignore a large and growing body of scientifically
John W. Fitzpatrick, Ph.D.
Director, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
President-emeritus (2000-2002), American Ornithologists' Union
Andre A. Dhondt, Ph.D.
Program Director, Bird Population Studies
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology
Letter to the Wall
Street Journal from the National Bird-Feeding Society:
In "Feeding Wild Birds May Harm Them and Environment," (page one,
Dec. 27), James P. Sterba focused on the potential negatives of backyard bird
feeding. But he doesn't mention why so many of us participate in the hobby.
Bird feeding is an entertaining, educational, stress-reducing activity that
brings us closer to nature than many other outdoor pursuits. It requires no
technical skills and is free of the beeping and buzzing that increasingly pollutes
our space. Feeding the birds provides us a chance to slow down, right in our
It's important also to consider something omitted in his report. It is more
likely that garbage cans, dumpsters and pet food dishes, rather than bird feeders,
are what's attracting "other mammals" to people's backyards at night.
In this day and age, in this enlightened country, anything that 52 million
people are doing can't be all bad. Our backyards may be the last remaining haven
where we determine what comes in -- native plants, blooming flowers, singing
songbirds -- and what doesn't: cell phones, laptops, beepers. Despite frenetic
lifestyles brought on by technology, birds still are able to rejuvenate the
National Bird-Feeding Society
My Own Letter to the Wall
I was surprised and delighted to learn of the Wall Street Journal's
new concern for the protection of wild birds, as evidenced in its front page
article about the perils of bird feeding. Based on how hard-hitting this story
was about an issue which countless ornithologists, including scientists at the
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, have gone on record saying is insignificant
makes me hungry to read the next ones in what promises to be a fascinating series.
I eagerly await similar coverage about the real issues which imperil birds,
especially those, unlike bird feeding, that researchers have established cause
serious damage to bird populations. When can we expect such front page, hard-hitting
coverage on global warming, mercury produced at coal-burning power plants, pesticides,
habitat reduction, coffee plantations and their destruction of tropical habitat,
power lines, tall buildings lighted during migration, communications towers,
cats, and wetland losses? These articles will be much easier to produce than
the feeder one, because ornithologists will happily discuss these issues and
their words and research papers won't have to be creatively enhanced to support
This series will do wonders to redeem your newspaper's reputation
after your mean-spirited and unfounded attacks on Rachel Carson and her work
during the 1960s, and your continued denials about the damage caused by pesticides,
global warming. etc. Despite my reservations about the distortions of fact your
writer needed to create to make bird feeding sound dangerous, I thank you for
your unexpected concern.
Back to top of Wall Street Journal Distortions
A Great Letter to the Contra-Costa
BIRD FEEDING IS OK
I appreciated your Sunday column regarding the Wall Street Journal
article on bird feeding.
Although I have done a fair bit of research on waterfowl, I don't claim to
be an authority on songbirds. I would just like to point out that an issue that
was completely ignored is the condition of birds at the beginning of the breeding
Research on waterfowl is in some respects easier because today we can do telemetry
studies as well as banding studies. We know that birds that reach the breeding
grounds in good condition will have greater reproductive success. If the backyard
feeding of songbirds allows them to return to the nesting areas in better condition,
this can easily offset any mortality caused by cats or other predators. (Don
Anthrop, professor, environmental studies, San Jose State University)