Bird feeding

A chickadee and a goldfinch feast on black-oil sunflower seeds at a backyard bird feeder.

As backyard birders across New York and Pennsylvania pull their bird feeders out of storage and fill them with seeds for the first time this year, some interesting research has opened new views into the world of bird feeding.

In cleaning bird feeders, residual debris can really get the way of maximum cleanliness, according to researchers at Kutztown (Pa.) University.

To determine the most effective cleaning method, the researchers compared 3 techniques: scrubbing with soap and water, soaking in a dilute bleach-water mix, and scrubbing with soap and water followed by bleach-water soak.

Measuring effectiveness by the amount of salmonella present on the feeder surfaces after cleaning, they determined that “all cleaning methods effectively reduced levels of salmonella on feeders without debris, but the presence of debris significantly lowered” that reduction.

“The bleach soak and the scrubbing with soap and water plus bleach soak methods had a significantly higher percent reduction in salmonella than the scrubbing with soap and water method overall.”

And, when there was debris present, the simple scrubbing method was even less effective.

The researchers “recommend either scrubbing with soap and water or a bleach soak to clean feeders with minimal debris but suggest a combination of these 2 cleaning methods if feeders have heavy debris or if diseased birds are known to be in the area.

The research was published in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

Another group of researchers, at Virginia Tech, investigated the interaction of people feeding birds and the nature in their backyards, finding those people “observe aspects of nature and respond in ways that may affect outcomes of feeding on wild birds.”

Ashley Dayer, assistant professor in the department of fish and wildlife conservation, explained, “Given that so many people are so invested in attracting birds to their backyard, we were interested in what natural changes they observe at their feeders beyond simply more birds. In particular, we wanted to know how they respond to their observations. For example, how do they feel if they see sick birds at their feeders, and what actions do they take to address these observations?”

The study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Odum School of Ecology at the University of Georgia.

The researchers worked with Project FeederWatch, a program managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that engages more than 25,000 people to observe and collect data on their backyard birds.

Using a survey of 1, 176 people who feed birds and record their observations of birds in the Project FeederWatch database, the researchers found that most people noticed natural changes in their backyards that could be due to feeding, including an increase in the number of birds at their feeders, a cat or hawk near their feeders, or a sick bird at their feeders.

“From my 17 years working with people who feed birds as part of citizen science projects, I’ve heard a great deal about their impactful observations at their feeders,” said co-author David Bonter, director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “This study provides important information about the breadth and pattern of these experiences through responses of over 1,000 participants. The findings will help us at Project Feederwatch improve how we work with bird watchers toward our shared goal of bird conservation.”

The people who feed birds also responded, particularly to cats at their feeders, by scaring off the cats, moving feeders, or providing shelter for birds.

When observing sick birds, most people cleaned their feeders.

When observing more birds, people often responded by providing more food.

Fewer people acted in response to seeing hawks; the most common response to this was providing shelter for the feeder birds.

These human responses were, in some cases, tied to peoples’ emotions about their observations, particularly anger. While cats near feeders most commonly evoked anger, sick birds led to sadness or worry. Emotions in response to hawks were more varied.

One surprising result that the researchers found in this study was that when deciding how much to feed birds, people prioritized natural factors, such as cold weather, more than time and money.

Most people believed that the effects of their feeding on wild birds was primarily good for birds, even though many observed and acted in response to natural events in their backyard that could impact the health of the birds and might partly result from their feeding.

The research was published in the journal People and Nature.

Jim Eckstrom is executive editor of the Olean Times Herald and Bradford Publishing Co. His email is