Western prof finds backyard feeding could help chickadees survive

March 10, 2023

Carrie Branch, professor, Department of Psychology

Photo by Rob Rombouts/Story by Megan Stacey (Western News)

Never throw bread to the neighbourhood ducks. Keep dogs and cats away from chocolate. There is a long list of rules for feeding animals. But when it comes to backyard songbirds, there is research to justify the bird feeder. 

A nine-year study of mountain chickadees munching from closely-monitored feeders shows there aren’t any concerning differences – either in behaviour or in reproduction – after the birds feast at their hanging buffet. 

“Anthropogenic disturbance has caused a lot of problems for wildlife. We’ve actually taken over their habitat. To me, it’s the least we can do to provide birds with some food,” Western psychology professor Carrie Branch said.  

Branch is a member of Western’s Advanced Facility for Avian Research. She’s also involved in a long-term project tracking a specific group of chickadees as they visit a remote field site in the Sierra Nevada mountains. 

“We don’t see any significant differences in reproduction between chickadees that do come to our feeders and those that don’t. That suggests we’re not altering their natural behaviour or natural output, which is great since we want to know about the birds’ wild behaviour,” Branch said of the “supplemental feeding” the team has studied. 

An immense amount of data has been captured by the decade-long project, with each bird wearing a band around its leg and a specific identification number scanned by radio frequency readers on the feeders. It’s work Branch started while pursuing her PhD at the University of Nevada, studying mountain chickadee communication and mating. 

“I didn’t know studying animal behaviour was an option, or that doing research was a potential career choice when I entered university,” Branch said. “When I found it, I thought ‘this is the thing. I found it.’ You’re told you have an ‘aha moment’ and it actually did happen for me.” 

The site in the Sierra Nevada mountains is very remote, often accessible only by snowmobile, with Branch and her colleagues hopping on for a 10– to 15– kilometre journey to the feeders.

Branch believes the results, based on those mountain chickadees, can be applied in a similar way to the black-capped chickadees common in London, Ont. and many other parts of the province. 

The news that backyard feeding may help, or at the very least not hurt, the birds will be welcome for those who love to watch flocks arriving at their backyard feeders. 

The $20 bag of seed you buy at the garden centre translates to big interest and big profit in North America: in the United States supplemental feeding – also known as backyard or hobby feeding – is a $4–billion industry, according to a 2021 study that tracked changes among bluebirds and chickadees. 

Chickadees, a small, nonmigratory bird, also take food from feeders to “cache,” or hide and store for later. 

“Waking up the next morning and finding that food store is the difference between life and death for these birds,” Branch said of chickadees. 

Context still matters, she added.  

The research deals specifically with chickadees in the mountains, so feeding may not be advantageous for other species of birds or those in drastically different environments, such as those passing through densely populated urban areas as they migrate south for the winter. 

Not all food sources would be appropriate in a backyard, either. Processed products for human consumption, and anything with added sugar are particularly troublesome for birds, Branch said, but eager birdwatchers should feel safe buying seed designed for backyard consumption, like bags of bird feed at outdoor or grocery stores. 

The research could have wider implications beyond backyard feeding, too. 

“Chickadees are very abundant. They are not threatened or of conservation concern. I think we’re in a great position to learn about the effects of climate change on this species,” Branch said. 

“One of our big, long-term goals is to understand how behaviour and cognition vary over time given the annual variation and extreme weather events brought on by climate change. We’ve got 10 years down, just 10 to 50 more to go.”