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The Positive Impacts of Bird Feeding with Ashley Dayer

Ashely Dayer joined Virginia Tech’s “Curious Conversations” to chat about her work at the intersection of birds and humans, including a new project that explores the positive impact bird feeding has on human well being and general tips for the hobby.

About Dayer

Dayer is an associate professor of Human Dimensions in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation and is an affiliated faculty member of the Global Change Center. She also leads the Dayer Human Dimensions Lab, which is home to the National Bird Conservation Social Science Coordinator.

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Travis Williams (00:39.351)

So thank you so I know that you've done and you do a lot of research when it comes to conservation and Kind of the impact specifically with birds and people and kind of vice versa. I'm curious What led you to that intersection of work?

Ashley Dayer (00:51.255)


Ashley Dayer (01:09.634)

That's a great question. I have had a longstanding interest in nature, but I never thought that I'd pursue that field until I was really struggling as an undergraduate to find my home and what really spoke to me. And I realized that I was not a city girl like I thought I was, and that being in Boston and Cambridge was a tough place for me.

to be all the time because I really liked to be outdoors. I liked to see wildlife. I liked to see nature. And so I realized that I wanted to head in the direction of studying wildlife. So that's what I did initially and was really committed to wildlife conservation and studied whales and seabirds and sea otters and dolphins and all sorts of fun things. But I ultimately felt like

I wasn't making a strong enough impact on conservation. And while I was having a lot of fun riding around on a boat all day long, what I needed to do the most was understand people and their connections with wildlife and their interests in wildlife conservation. And so I started doing social science research and over the course of my time doing social science research,

I've tried to circle back around to the ecology and biology side of things and have been very interested in social ecological systems where we study people and wildlife and the habitat altogether, because that is ultimately how the world's working. So I do so with my colleagues and it's allowing me to look at things like how do people impact wildlife and then how does wildlife impact people.

and being able to look at that whole system together.

Travis Williams (03:07.027)

Yeah, that's awesome. And so is there something special that drew you to two birds in general?

Ashley Dayer (03:13.402)

Yeah, so I grew up with bird feeders in my backyard. My mom was really into backyard bird feeding and I enjoyed watching birds out the window. Loved chickadees, that was my favorite bird when I was a kid. And it was funny, because when I was doing research related to marine mammals, I'd get annoyed by the bird watchers on my study site and annoyed if I had to identify a new bird.

But ultimately got a really exciting bird job in Hawaii, studying the world's rarest bird at the time, the Po'ouli. This was in 2001 after I graduated from college. And I was really hooked after a field season of studying birds and really intrigued to study them more.

And then there's also a pragmatic component to it that when you study marine mammals, you don't get paid. You have to pay to be a researcher. And when you look for a bird job, you actually can get paid a living wage or maybe at least a surviving wage as a researcher. So I started doing more bird related work and got into it.

Travis Williams (04:33.119)

Yeah, it's interesting to me too that I feel like that people, more people I know have a, I feel like a stronger connection with birds maybe than like whales.


Ashley Dayer (04:44.106)

Yeah, it's because birds are in your backyard, right? Or birds are what you see on your way to work, or you wake up in the morning and you can hear the birds. And so it is much easier for people to have a connection to birds. You don't have to be out on a whale watching boat to actually see the wildlife that you're interested in.

Travis Williams (05:05.439)

Yeah, there's nothing against whales. I just want to preface, I should have preface that. Well, that's really cool. I know that you had a paper that you were the lead author on recently that published in Nature. Actually, let me back that up. I know that you had a paper recently that you were the lead author on that published in People in Nature that kind of explored or maybe urged for more exploration actually of this relationship between people and birds.

Ashley Dayer (05:07.646)

Nothing against that. Yeah, we still like them.

Travis Williams (05:35.051)

Can you maybe in a nutshell maybe explain what that's about?

Ashley Dayer (05:38.454)

Yeah, so we've been really interested in seeing how state fish and wildlife agencies are managing the challenging situation of avian disease, particularly as it relates to bird feeding. And so state fish and wildlife agencies have put out some guidance in recent disease-related outbreaks such as avian flu or a mystery outbreak that happened a couple of years ago.

that people should take down their bird feeders. And my colleagues and I took a look at those recommendations and guidelines over 20 some different states and realized that in most cases, that guidance was not necessarily based upon biological evidence and certainly not social science evidence to support what those states were suggesting.

And in fact, we also saw that the members of the public responding to their blogs or to their posts or via social media were concerned, confused, frustrated by that response of the agencies as well. So my colleagues and I were encouraging to do a little bit of research


our state Fish and Wildlife Agency decision makers to think more about how there can be unintended consequences for human wellbeing when those recommendations are made and encourage them to really ensure that those recommendations are based upon biological evidence when they make them to make sure that it's worth the negative implications for people not being able to feed birds.

Travis Williams (07:26.515)

And you all are, you're exploring some of that. You're gathering some of that hard data.

Ashley Dayer (07:31.838)

Yeah, so we fortunately have National Science Foundation funding and a collaborative project to be able to look at the experience of people feeding birds through a participatory science project called Project Feeder Watch. And we have about 20,000 people enrolled in Project Feeder Watch this year. I should say Cornell Lab of Ornithology, our partner, does, they manage that project. And

Those individuals are keeping track of the birds that they see at their feeders as they have been for 36 years through this project. But they're also now keeping track of a bit more of their disease observations, any observations they see about birds that have died in their feeding area, other mammals that might be in their feeding area, their management changes that they're making in those areas. And then also with part we're super excited about

the emotions that they experience when they make all those different observations at their feeders.

Travis Williams (08:36.043)

That's really cool. Are people able to still take part in that or is it kind of is it closed already or?

Ashley Dayer (08:42.334)

No, you can sign up anytime during the season. Their season runs through April, so people can still sign up for that. And it's really flexible. People are able to submit observations on a weekly basis, but if you miss a week, that's okay. And you can only do every other week, that's fine as well. And it's been, I should say, as someone who's participated in it before, it's been fun for me and my family. My kids get really into it as well.

Travis Williams (09:09.795)

That's really cool. Well, I'm curious when it comes to just bird feeding in general one of the things I'm curious about is What what do most birds eat do birds? This might sound like a silly question, but I'm curious do birds eat a lot of worms? Or just early in the morning

Ashley Dayer (09:26.486)

Well, this time of year, they're not eating a lot of worms because it's a little bit frozen out there. I don't know if you saw all that snow this morning, Travis. Uh-huh. I think you did. So this time of year, birds are eating a lot of seeds. And the birds that rely on insects have tended to migrate south of here so that they can get that food that they need. So the birds that we have left in the local area.

Travis Williams (09:35.751)

I did, I did.

Ashley Dayer (09:55.526)

are birds that can subsist on seeds or berries that might still be around. When we're talking about songbirds or feeder birds, of course, there's other birds that are feeding on other birds or feeding on mammals, but they're not typically the ones that come to your bird feeder. So at bird feeders right now, birds are eating sunflower seeds, mixed seeds, peanuts, preferably unsalted ones is what's good for them.

and then also sue it, typically made out of beef fat.

Travis Williams (10:28.615)

Okay. Well, and I'm also curious if, so if I'm feeding birds and like it gets, there's like a, it's cold, like it is a bird today and I'm just like, I'm not going to feed. And then it stays cold for a couple of weeks. If I stopped feeding the birds, do the birds that come to my feeder, do they, do they forget how to get their own food or can they just, do they have an instinct to naturally go back to that? Like what happens? I don't want to starve the birds out.

Ashley Dayer (10:37.421)


Ashley Dayer (10:52.958)

Yeah, so scientists believe that they are probably fine in that situation. They are used to moving around to variable food sources and so they may go check out someone else's backyard or they may find some other feed. It can be harder on them in a situation where there's heavy snow cover or it's harder to find berries or find food on the ground if they don't have bird feeders around.

A situation where it is really necessary is like if someone has had a hummingbird feeder out in a location and those hummingbirds have stayed around for the winter because there is humming, because there's nectar available, but there isn't naturally nectar. If that hummingbird feeder was taken in abruptly, then that could be really challenging for those individual birds. But we're not going to have luck even doing that here because it's still a little too cold for them.

Travis Williams (11:48.607)

Yeah, okay, well that's great. Well, I guess I'm also just kind of just curious, in general, what are some just good tips and practices that somebody like me who doesn't, I don't know a whole lot about bird feeding, to be honest with you, but what should I know? What's the go-to kind of knowledge I need to have to appropriately feed birds and help the birds that live in my backyard?

Ashley Dayer (12:15.83)

Yeah, so one thing is to make sure that you cite your bird feeder in a way that's going to be safe for birds. So you want to make sure that you don't have cats in your backyard. And if you do have cats in your backyard, make sure there's no way that they're able to get up to the feeder or that birds are going to be feeding under it. Because there's a lot of predation from cats on birds and you don't want to be creating a cat feeder instead of a bird feeder.

Another thing that's important to think about is how far away from windows you're placing that bird feeder. And it's believed that if you have it like within six feet or so, 10 feet from your window, that the birds can't get it up enough speed to then collide with your window and die. You can also put UV sort of stickers on your window too to keep them from hitting your window, or you could put your bird feeder 30 plus feet.

away from your window so that you're not close at all to the window. So that's another really important thing to keep in mind. And then of course for human safety, if you are in an area that has bears, you want to make sure that you're not feeding during a time of year when bears are active or again, that there's no way that bears can get to your feeder. For example, I have my feeder going off of a string from a second floor window at my house. And so there's no way that the bears can.

can get up there. But that, of course, is another thing to keep in mind. So keeping in mind all those sighting-related elements is really useful. And then also having some cover in your yard for those birds so that they want to be in that area so that they feel like they're protected from a predator if a predator comes by, so if a hawk flies over. So you might want to have that bird feeder near some trees. You might want to have a brush pile in your yard. Those can all be ways that birds can find cover.

And you also can create native plant gardens or plant native brush or shrubs in your backyard as well, so that those birds can find other natural food sources and have another reason that they're coming to your yard. So that's all sort of thinking about the environment of where you're feeding birds. And then in terms of your bird feeder itself, putting in healthy food like the sources that I was just mentioning, seeds, unsalted peanuts,

Ashley Dayer (14:42.746)

suet or during hummingbird season, having a nectar feeder can all be really great ways to attract birds with healthier food sources for them. Best to avoid things like bread or salted food or other food scraps that might not be as healthy. Fruit can be okay again

Ashley Dayer (15:12.438)

those feed and you want to keep the area clean too. So I try to avoid having a tray feeder because that can be a place where it collects bird feces. Instead having a feeder where there's a little open ports with a perch on them can be a better way to go. Also cleaning that bird feeder at a regular interval, something we're actually doing research on is how frequently you should clean it to try to minimize disease spread.

as well. And then if you're doing something like hummingbird feeding, you definitely want to regularly, each time you refill it, clean that feeder because that can get mold in it in the summer, which birds are really susceptible to.

Travis Williams (15:53.907)

Yeah, well that's some great insight that I wrote down most of it and I'm gonna use it. I'm curious also, do birds actually like bird baths?

Ashley Dayer (15:59.519)

Okay, great.

Ashley Dayer (16:04.266)

Yeah, so water sources, you're right. Another great thing to add. So this time of year, you can have a heated bird bath so that it will still provide, maybe not a bird bath location for them as much this time of year, but just water to be drinking as can be something to attract birds to an area, particularly when there's minimal water in an area. So if you live near a creek, maybe not as important.

But if you're in a drier area, they can certainly be attracted to that water source. And again, that bird bath can be another important place to be cleaning, particularly in the summer, where it's more likely to get dirty.

Travis Williams (16:42.547)

Yeah, we always had bird baths when I was a kid, but I never knew if they actually liked them or just like my grandma really liked us.


Ashley Dayer (16:49.878)

It's really fun to watch them take a bath. So we'll see you later.

Travis Williams (16:52.871)

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Well, awesome. Well, the last thing I'm kind of curious about is the chickadee still your favorite bird?

Ashley Dayer (17:00.574)

Oh, that's a tough one now. I feel like I have categories of favorite bird. I think that's still my favorite bird feeder bird, but I also really like Carolina Wrens for listening to them sing. I like Sandhill Cranes for going to watch their behavior. You know, of course I have a soft spot for Hawaiian honey creepers. So I could go on and on with all my favorite birds.

Travis Williams (17:21.683)

Well, I don't think they're gonna listen to this podcast, so they're not gonna be offended if you call them out. Right? Awesome, well, thank you so much for talking to me. I really appreciate it.

Ashley Dayer (17:24.69)

Yeah, yeah, so they're not gonna be jealous.