Many gardeners don't put out feeders because they're afraid that birds will rely on them and lose their natural ability to forage. But research from the University of Wisconsin shows that winter-survival rates are higher when birds have both feeder and native food options and that birds retain the ability to forage if feeders are removed. "Feeders reduce the amount of time it takes to find food," says Stephen Kress, an ornithologist and coauthor of the Audubon North American Birdfeeder Guide. "And the average meal size is certainly larger than tiny weed seeds or wintering insects dug out of tree bark." Feeders are especially important in late winter, when other food is in short supply, and during periods of heavy snow or extreme cold.
Feeders can harbor disease, and improper placement may expose birds to predators and other hazards. Prevent these drawbacks by choosing plastic, steel, or glass feeders, which are easy to clean and don't harbor molds and fungus. Clean your feeders at least twice a year by soaking them in a 10 percent bleach solution for three minutes, scrubbing them with a brush, and rinsing with clean water. Keep seed in dry, sealed containers and put out only enough seed to last several hours (or days, if dry weather is expected).
Protect birds from crashing into windows by stretching netting several inches in front of the glass. Also, wild birds aren't as skilled at evading cats as Tweety Bird is, so placing feeders near shelter (hedges, trees, and gardens) is especially important. Cats kill several hundred million (yep, you read that correctly) birds each year. Properly placed bird feeders may deter predation, since they allow birds to spend less time feeding and more time looking out for predators, notes Kress.