Food for thought: supplementary feeding as a driver of ecological change in avian populations



Every year, millions of households provide huge quantities of supplementary food to wild birds. While alteration of the natural dynamics of food supply represents a major intervention in avian ecology, we have a remarkably limited understanding of the impacts of this widespread pastime. Here, we examine the many and varied responses of birds to supplementary feeding at backyard feeders – in large-scale management projects and in focused academic studies – and evaluate population responses to the bird-feeding phenomenon. Our review encompasses a wide range of species, from songbirds to raptors, and compares provisioning with a variety of foods, at different times of year and in different locations. We consider positive impacts, such as aiding species conservation programs, and negative ones, such as increased risk of disease transmission. It seems highly likely that natural selection is being artificially perturbed, as feeding influences almost every aspect of bird ecology, including reproduction, behavior, demography, and distribution. As the effects of bird feeding cascade through ecosystems and interact with processes of environmental change, we suggest areas for future research and highlight the need for large-scale experiments, with a particular focus on the backyards of an increasingly urban and generous, but sometimes fickle, human population.