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Conserv Physiol. 2015 Dec 21;3(1):cov058. doi: 10.1093/conphys/cov058. eCollection 2015.

Effects of bird-feeding activities on the health of wild birds.

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Biology Department, Millikin University, 1184 West Main Street, Decatur, IL 62522, USA.
Biology Department, Millikin University, 1184 West Main Street, Decatur, IL 62522, USA; Natural Resources Conservation Service, United States Department of Agriculture, 2623 Sunrise Drive, Springfield, IL 62703, USA.
Biology Department, Millikin University, 1184 West Main Street, Decatur, IL 62522, USA; Department of Poultry Science, University of Georgia, 215 Poultry Science Building, Athens, GA 30602, USA.


Among the most popular reasons that people feed wild birds is that they want to help birds. The extent to which supplemental food helps birds, however, is not well established. From spring 2011 to spring 2014, we examined how feeding of wild birds influences the health of individual birds at forested sites in central Illinois, USA. Specifically, we compared three forested sites where we provided supplemental food with three forested sites for which no supplemental food was available and monitored changes in the individual health of birds. In addition, we determined whether any changes in bird health had occurred after feeders had been removed from sites 10 months before. Generally, the individual health of birds improved with supplemental feeding, including increased antioxidant levels, reduced stress (heterophil-to-lymphocyte ratio) and more rapid feather growth. In some species, we also found improved body condition index scores and innate immune defense. The difference among sites was not present 10 months after feeders were removed, suggesting that the impact on health was indeed related to supplemental feeding. Potential negative effects of supplemental feeding were also found, including an increase in infectious disease prevalence among individual birds at forested sites where supplemental food was offered. Birds with clear signs of pathology showed deficits in most of the physiological metrics in which birds at feeder sites typically showed improved health condition. At the peak of prevalence of infectious disease, 8.3% of all birds at feeders exhibited symptoms of conjunctivitis, pox, dermal disease or cloacal disease. We found both positive and negative impacts of wild bird feeding, and that, in general, birds that had access to supplemental food were in better physiological condition. Moreover, the negative effects we found may be mitigated by hobbyists engaging in safer bird-feeding practices.


Anthropogenic food; avian physiology; disease; songbirds

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