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Is it bad to feed bread to wild birds?

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The weatherman predicted flurries, but there’s a foot of snow on the ground. In the backyard, the empty bird feeder dangles from the pole while a horde of birds waits expectantly.

Where did they all come from, and who put out the word that this was a hostel for stranded travelers? Not only are the usual cardinals, chickadees, and titmice waiting for their breakfast, but it looks like they have invited their distant relations. Birds line the tree limbs, elbow to elbow, or dot the snow, their feathers all puffed out against the cold. Juncos apply their hunt-and-peck technique in a vain attempt to find a morsel of food.

The bag of birdseed is enough for the regulars, but without a biblical miracle, it will not feed the flock that waits anxiously for a hand out. Is the answer to offer them loaves of bread?

Some people say that it is wrong---unnatural---to feed a wild animal at all. Wild animals, they contend, should not be tamed and made into pets, but allowed to live their lives naturally. Yet these wild birds live in an urban environment. Many of the trees, shrubs, and wild grasses that their species may, at one time, have survived on, have been cut down and replaced by houses, roads, parking lots, factories, and farms. Their wetlands have been filled in, and their waterways are used as highways and sewers. To 'let nature take its course' under such altered circumstances is not truly natural.

Others argue that giving birds anything but sunflower and high-quality seed or suet will be their death. Will a bird drop dead if it eats bread? No. Many foods, such as bread, that some bird enthusiasts harp against are not bad in themselves, but simply are not a part of the bird’s usual diet, or are bad only if the bird eats nothing but that particular food. Birds, like people, require diets that provide a variety of nutrients, and bread alone will not provide all the nutrients that birds (or people) need, such as protein and fats, to help them generate heat to keep warm.

So it is okay to put some bread out with the seed to feed the flock. A tray of bits of scrambled egg would provide protein. A bit of peanut butter or bacon grease on the bread would add fat. Some birders recommend bacon as a tasty and nutritious snack while others warn against it because preservatives in bacon may be converted to nitrosamines when the bacon is fried, and nitrosamines are carcinogenic. But think about it---bacon fat may be carcinogenic to people. Offering birds (or people) a bit of bacon fat to tide them through a week of bad weather is not the same as a steady diet of fried bacon.

The key to feeding wild birds in winter is to offer a healthy variety of food, chopped in small bits, and changed daily to prevent spoilage. Then it’s for the birds to decide. In addition to bread and scrambled eggs, try crumbled shells from boiled eggs (think of this as a calcium supplement), bits of fruit (apple, orange, soaked raisins, other berries), baked seeds from pumpkin or squash, cooked rice, peanut butter (spread on bread or mixed with cornmeal until crumbly), oatmeal and unsalted peanuts.

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