Should you feed birds? RSPB respond to the controversial debate

Does feeding birds cause more harm than good?

robin and blue tits at a bird feeder in the snow
(Image credit: Getty)

A lot of us enjoy watching local birds visiting our feeders – they're a cheap and easy way to invite wildlife into our gardens. But recently there has been some debate around whether feeding birds in winter (if at all) is actually doing any good.

A paper by conservation biologists poses the question of whether feeding birds helps or hinders biodiversity conservation efforts. It suggests that less dominant birds like the marsh tit miss out as other varieties like blue tits reap the rewards.

We spoke to the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) to clear things up.

bird at feeder in winter

(Image credit: Getty)

The paper (opens in new tab) suggests that feeding birds helps more common species outcompete rarer ones and that it can spread diseases. The RSPB (opens in new tab) says that while the paper raises 'several reasonable concerns', the evidence 'currently suggests that the overall benefits probably outweigh any negative effects.'

The leading bird charity says that leaving food out in our gardens can allow birds to survive periods of food shortage, especially during cold weather. It describes the arguments linking feeding to declines of woodland birds as 'speculative' and with 'limited scientific support.'

The RSPB says the causes of increases in some generalist species are unclear and may include milder winters and supplementary feeding. The charity adds that right now, evidence suggests that changes to woodland are the most likely cause of willow and marsh tit decline.

wild bird in winter

(Image credit: Getty)

As for disease transmission, the recent declines affecting greenfinch and chaffinch could be connected to the spread of the Trichomonas parasite at bird feeders and water baths. 'It is important to regularly clean bird feeders and water baths,' the RSPB advises. 

'If a local outbreak of Trichomonas is suspected we recommend that bird feeding should stop and bird baths be left dry until there is no further evidence of infection.'

Is it good to feed birds?

blue tit eating suet ball from bird feeder

(Image credit: Marcel ter Bekke/Moment/Getty Images)

As the RSPB says, the positives outweigh the negatives, and you can do your bit to prevent the spread of disease by keeping your bird feeders clean. A bird feeder, available at Amazon (opens in new tab), is a great way to observe nature and take a moment to pause.

We recently wrote about a winter bird care warning from the RHS, who says it's important to be consistent if you do choose to feed birds, as otherwise birds can waste vital energy coming to an empty feeder. You can also make your plot more nature-friendly with simple wildlife garden ideas such as leaving a patch of grass to grow long and sowing wildflower seeds.

We're glad we can leave our best bird feeders out without worrying we're interfering with the natural order of things.

Millie joined Gardeningetc in early 2021. She loves creating a vibrant display of containers in her small urban garden and is always picking up new plants at the local garden center. She's never without some fresh flowers at home and her favorite houseplant is her variegated pothos that's currently climbing its way over her bookshelves.