Jeff McNeil is a birder. As winter approached, he fastened his four plastic bird feeders atop his Chevy truck and drove through a car wash. It was time to set up a clean bird station in the backyard.
There are 63 million birders like Mr. McNeil in North America, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Although most birders do not go so far as to wash their feeders at a car wash, they do participate enthusiastically in bird feeding.
"The time I spend in spring doing gardening I now spend in feeding and watching birds," the retired car salesman says.
Like McNeil, an increasing number of Americans are redefining year-round leisure by gardening in spring and summer, and feeding birds in fall and winter.
The fascination with these feathered creatures has also evoked concern and curiosity: Are we interfering with nature if we feed birds? What do various birds species like to eat? How can we best enjoy their presence?
"I start feeding birds before winter begins," McNeil says as he shopped last week for sunflower seeds at a Brookline, Mass., store devoted solely to birds. "If you start feeding them early they are likely to stick around, especially if their food supply is consistent."
Wild Bird Feeding Month
While millions put food out for the friendly tufted titmice and chickadees in November, the colder and snow-threatened February is the most popular time. In 1993 Congress acknowledged this wild indulgence by naming February the "Wild Bird Feeding Month."
"More people are feeding birds now than ever before," says Jim Carpenter. "The wider availability of bird seed and a greater awareness of environmental issues has [contributed] to increased interest in bird feeding."
Mr. Carpenter knows birds. They made him rich. Some 25 years ago, with an investment of $3,000, Carpenter started Wild Birds Unlimited in a small shop on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Today, with 246 franchises in North America, Wild Birds Unlimited is the McDonald's of the bird-feed industry. Last year, Americans spent $4.2 billion on bird feed, feeders, houses, and other paraphernalia.
It is unlikely that the dilemma of whether or not to feed birds will ever be settled. There are two schools of thought:
"It's a myth that without our help birds will not survive winters. Birds can forage enough food to survive," says Margaret Barker, educator at the Cornell Ornithology Lab's Project FeederWatch (birds.cornell.edu). "The bird feeder is just another stop on their foraging route," she continues.
Yet some studies have concluded that in harsh winter months - like last December when snow blanketed the the upper Northeast and Canada - feeding birds give them a better chance at survival.
Some situations beg for help. This year, in a rare migration pattern caused by harsh weather and food shortages - following a successful breeding season - winter finches, including purple finches, redpolls, and evening grosbeaks, are migrating south from Canada in unusually large numbers. (See maps, left.)
At the same time, birds do not become dependent on handouts, according to a Penn State study. They continue with their lives even if feeding discontinued. "I've been told I can go on vacation and not worry about them," says Joan Barron, a lifelong New Englander.
Waste attracts rats
Another concern is that as urban areas expand, natural food supplies dwindle substantially for our feathered friends.
Dumpsters become birds'' best friends. Bird feeders, therefore, act as invitations for city birds to lead suburban lives.
There are other cautions. A study by Project FeederWatch determined that half of all reported mortalities at feeders occurred near windows. Put the feeder at a safe distance, say 7 to 15 yards away from the window.
People can also do harm by putting out feed that is likely to go uneaten. The uneaten seeds usually end up on the ground. It's not only a waste but attracts squirrels, rats, and other animals.
Squirrels also frequently invite themselves to feeders. One method of squirrel-proofing is placing a garbage can lid or old phonograph record above the feeder as a baffle. The squirrels land on a wobbly surface and fall to the ground.
Some manufactures offer feeders that shut off food supply whenever a squirrel or a relatively heavy creature tries to feed.
For Ms. Barron, bird feeding is more than just a hobby. This year she became a first-time FeederWatcher. FeederWatchers tell scientists what birds they see in their backyards. In this way, everyday bird lovers have made important contributions to ornithology.
For instance, FeederWatch Project found out that black-capped chickadee flocks are larger at Northern feeders than in the South. House sparrows are declining in many areas, while house finches continue to increase.
Manufacturers make bird feeders to meet different tastes. Among them are feeders that pipe the bird songs and chirps into the living room with a wireless microphone and transmitter.
For McNeil, birding is an educational hobby. He keeps a pair of binoculars and "Peterson's Field Guide to Birds of North America" handy near his rocker. "Birding grows on you," he says.
"Despite my belief that [feeding] goes against the natural order of things, I will still feed birds." says McNeil. "I've just loved nature all my life. I think I can talk to birds better than to people..."