For the Birds Radio Program: Mesh Feeders and Other Hazards

Original Air Date: Dec. 15, 1999 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: March 6, 2018; Dec. 11, 2008; Jan. 23, 2004; Jan. 11, 2001

Some of the ways we try to help birds can end up harming them. (Obsolete email address)

Duration: 3′19″


A couple of weeks ago, a listener called me about a tragedy at her bird feeder. She’s a teacher, and one day she came home to discover a dead Red-breasted Nuthatch. Its foot had become entangled in the mesh onion bag she used as a suet feeder. I’ve long told people that these mesh bags make good feeders, and this is the first time I’ve ever heard of a problem with them. I felt bad about it, but she felt terrible.

We humans make a contract with the vulnerable creatures we invite into our yards. We offer them water, grain, and discarded animal fat in exchange for their lovely presence. They bring color and song to our backyards, and also an innocence and a sweetness hard to find in an age of ironic detachment and cynicism. Overall, I think we get the better end of the deal. As humans, the supposedly wiser species in this contract, we bear a special obligation to ensure that above all, we do no harm to the birds we entice to our homes.

Some backyard dangers are obvious. House cats belong indoors everywhere, but nowhere more than where feeders attract birds. Lawn chemicals are toxic to worms, insects, and the birds that feed on them. Picture windows take an enormous toll. We have a responsibility to do what we can to make windows visible to birds.

But other dangers are more subtle. Sugar water in hummingbird feeders ferments after just a few days, which can cause serious liver damage. And food colorings may cause cancer. Setting out hummingbird feeders, we take on the responsibility to make sure the food we provide is nourishing and healthful. A heated birdbath provides a wonderful source of water in winter, but when days fall below zero, steam may coat feathers, causing hypothermia. Seeds and shells collecting on the ground can get rancid or harbor fungus and other disease organisms. Hawks and shrikes in the neighborhood may learn how to efficiently hunt the birds at our feeders. It sometimes seems as if it’s a jungle out there, right in our own backyard.

The one thing we can be pretty sure of is that our own feeders won’t hurt birds. So when an awful accident like a mesh-bag entanglement happens, it’s jarring. If anyone out there has ever had a problem with birds getting caught in a mesh feeder, please send me a note in care of this station, or an email to (now If this was more than a freak accident, it would be good to alert people. I don’t want anyone else coming home to discover a dead nuthatch, such a sweet, inoffensive bird, dangling from their feeder. That’s a sight that would give me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, or maybe closer to my heart.