For the birds

When the snow gets this high, it’s hard to maintain the 4-foot rule.

Many people I know find all kinds of reasons not to feed birds in winter. The most common are:

  • The food attracts rats. Indeed, when I was shopping for feeders recently, a garden center employee told me that it was illegal to feed birds in Buffalo. So many weird things about that statement—but, first of all, why is this store selling illegal feeders? As I discovered, there is a bylaw concerning bird feeders: they must be four feet off the ground. But they are legal. And there are other ways to make feeders impossible for rats to get at. I have never seen the creatures in our yard (I know that doesn’t mean anything, but it’s good enough for me).
  • The squirrels eat it all. This is kind of like the rat argument and has some of the same answers. I have found that squirrel-proof feeders work and the suet feeders in round enclosures that keep out all but small birds are good for this as well. I don’t leave out unprotected bird seed or suet.
  • It makes a mess. I suppose, but it’s winter and I really don’t care. You can buy mess-free seed, and, at its worst, bird seed mess is easy to sweep up. I’d rather have birds and mess than no birds (within reason).
  • Birds get too dependent. There is at least one study (done in Wisconsin) that shows the presence of feeders does not affect survival rates, at least with chickadees. Regardless, I figure our year-round urban birds need all the help they can get in frigid winters.

The birds around our feeders provide a great source of entertainment on cold winter days. It’s also fun to watch them using the snow as a bird bath and for protection. They’re great reminders that, as we go to great lengths to insulate ourselves from weather, other creatures have to make the best of it. With a little help.

And the sight of them doing so can even inspire the humans inside to get outside and brave a little nature themselves.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. I stopped feeding birds for a couple of years because the sparrows were hogging the feeders – they eat everything but peanuts in the shell. This winter I moved the feeders to the front yard which is not as sparrow friendly as the backyard. I also plant bird feeding shrubs and trees – nothing like robins in winter eating hawthorn berries! More important than feed may be ice free water, though.

  2. Feed the birds! There is nothing more relaxing than having a bird feeder (or several) where you can sit and watch the activity. My 5-year-old granddaughter loves picking up the binoculars and watching the birds feed. She gets a thrill out of identifying the birds. Even the squirrels provide a source of laughter at their antics in trying to get to the feeder.

  3. We put up a bird feeder outside our front living room winter and we call it our cat TV. Our cat sits in the windows and watches birds to her heart’s content.


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