How the Simple Backyard Bird Feeder Can Lift Local Environment Reporting

December 6, 2023
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Nearly 60 million North Americans feed wild birds, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Above, a cardinal in a Tennessee backyard. Photo: deldevries via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED).

TipSheet: How the Simple Backyard Bird Feeder Can Lift Local Environment Reporting

By Joseph A. Davis

Winter is arriving and backyard bird feeders are being filled. Such a simple activity may, er, fly under a reporter’s radar. But bird feeding gives many people a connection to the environment — and gives journalists a chance to connect to their audience’s beloved hobby.

It may even help environmental journalists stop doomscrolling for a day or two. Don’t get us wrong: Even with our avian neighbors, there is plenty to worry about (see our June TipSheet on bird decline).


Bird feeders in winter

are like a universal

holiday greeting card.


But bird feeders in winter are like a universal holiday greeting card. The picture of a bright red cardinal standing out against the white of snow. The song of a Carolina wren amid the muffled silence of a post-blizzard landscape.

So a how-to or why-to story may be just the thing to brighten everybody’s mood. Or offer a chance for ecological insights.


The backstory

People have been feeding birds for a long time — and not just by means of backyard bird feeders. In recent years, the business of selling feeders and food expanded.

Then came the pandemic, and the homebound multitudes found feeders could make life in quarantine and lockdowns more bearable. The use of feeders took off.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, something like 60 million North Americans feed wild birds. That amounts to about a million tons of seed a year.


Story ideas

  • Who sells feeders and seed in your area? Hardware stores, seed-and-feed stores, garden stores and nurseries, etc., are all candidates. Go there and hang out in the feeder section. Observe, and strike up conversations with interested customers. Ask to visit their yards.
  • Find local birding clubs (try Google and Facebook). Is there a local Audubon chapter in your area? Go to a meeting or go on an organized walk, and talk to people about their bird-feeding experience.
  • Birds are pollinators, so find local pollinator gardens. One way to do this is through certifying organizations like the National Wildlife Federation (there are others). What native plants are especially suited to attracting birds? Talk to owners of such gardens.  
  • Put out a feeder (or feeders) of your own, if you have a suitable area. Keep a detailed journal of the birds you see and their behavior. Talk to birders and experts about what you see and hear.
  • Visit local refuges and nature areas that offer interpretive services. If they have feeders, talk to the staff who maintain them. Talk to interpretive staff.
  • What can you find out about bird populations and behavior from local feeder observations? What birds stay the winter? Do they gather in flocks? What birds do and don’t feed?
  • What would birds be eating if there were no feeders? We have seen a flock of robins strip a holly tree of its berries in a matter of minutes. What natural food sources does your area offer and what human activities augment or deplete them?
  • Look into what kind of feeding devices and practices attract what kind of birds in your area. What foods are preferred? For example, finches like the smaller niger seeds which require different feeders. Who likes ground feeding? Who likes platform feeding? Woodpeckers (who often stay the winter) like suet feeders, which are a whole different ballgame.
  • Squirrels annoy people who feed birds by attacking and pillaging feeders. If you talk to yard feeders about them, you will get a conversation. Don’t mention rats or cats.
  • Talk to local experts (at universities or wildlife agencies) about how bird feeders may spread disease among birds. Except in rare cases, proper management of feeders can minimize this.


Reporting resources

[Editor’s Note: In addition to the previously mentioned TipSheet on declining bird populations, also see other TipSheets on talking to birders and the problems of lead ammunition, a Toolbox on a bird migration explorer, and a Feature on an iconic grassland bird, plus BookShelf reviews on “The Bird Way” and on long-distance migrators and a Q&A of a book about puffins. Also, get the latest EJToday headlines about birds.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 44. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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