6 Things You Should Never Feed Backyard Birds

Keep these foods far away from your feathered friends.

September 8, 2016
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Feeding your neighborhood gang of finches may make you feel good, but depending on what you provide, it may not do the same for the birds’ stomachs. Like our pets, birds can’t eat many of the foods humans enjoy. However, unlike dogs and cats, our avian friends are wild animals that need to stay that way—don't ever feed birds from your hands and try to keep all human interaction to a minimum.

Even placement of your feeder needs to be done with care—particularly when it comes to windows. Birds can get confused by reflections and accidentally fly into the glass. “Window strikes take a huge toll on bird populations,” says John Griffin, the director of urban wildlife at the Humane Society of the United States. To avoid strikes, place a feeder either within three feet of a window or at least 30 feet away from it. “Within three feet they can’t get enough speed to do a lot of damage,” explains Griffin, and 30 feet is far enough away that they’re unlikely to get confused.

What you fill those feeders with matters, too. Here are six things you should never ever feed your local birds. 

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You probably remember throwing crumbs to ducks and geese as a kid. Please, please don’t continue that tradition, pleads Griffin. “I get so frustrated when I see people heading to their local pond to feed bread to the ducks or geese,” he says. “I know it’s coming from a good place, but it habituates the birds to human contact and create nuisance birds.”

Furthermore, bread won’t kill birds, but it has zero nutritional value. And if birds fill up on it, they end up not eating the things they actually need. “Angel wing is a condition birds get when their bones don’t develop properly because they aren’t getting enough nutrition,” says Griffin, and this often occurs because bread is a staple of their diet. If the case is severe enough, birds won’t be able to fly. 

Related: A Quick Guide To Building The Perfect Birdhouse

hummingbird feeder
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Old Sugar Syrup

Hummingbird feeders are a fun way to attract tiny fliers, but leaving one unattended for days and days is a recipe for disaster. Sugar ferments in the sun, and if you’re not careful, you could be getting your flock seriously drunk. If hummingbirds drink too much fermented liquid, it can lead to organ failure and death. Make sure to restock your hummingbird feeder with fresh liquid every three days. (Or go the more natural route by growing these 5 plants that attract hummingbirds.)

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Okay, so you probably weren’t planning to waste your premium 80-percent-cocoa bar on backyard birds. Consider this more of a warning not to leave chocolate lying around unattended. Chocolate is poisonous for birds and if they eat enough, it can be fatal. So keep your candy stash safely inside.


You’ve probably heard the urban legend that birds who eat uncooked rice explode when the rice expands in their stomachs. This myth is just that. Birds actually can eat rice without the risk of gastrointestinal pyrotechnics. However, Griffin says that like bread, rice lacks the nutrition that birds need. They’re likely to gorge themselves on it instead of eating nutritious food, resulting in vitamin and mineral deficiencies. 

Related: How To Make Migratory Birds Fall In Love With Your Backyard

salt shaker
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Don’t ever salt the water in your birdbath. Yes, in winter, a little salt may help keep the water from freezing, but it could also hurt the birds you’re trying to help. The Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, a UK-based NGO focused on conservation, says that extreme care should be used when feeding anything with salt to birds. While salt is a part of birds’ normal diet, it’s easy for the tiny critters to overdose. (A better method to keep your birdbath from freezing is to float a small object in it and to check it regularly in cold weather.)


You may not be leaving milk out for birds, but if you're setting out a saucer of milk for a neighborhood kitty, please don't. According to the Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds, birds are lactose intolerant, and milk can cause severe gastric distress. In large enough quantities it can even kill a bird. (Plus, it’s not great for that stray kitty, either.) Interestingly, like many lactose-intolerant humans, birds can eat small amounts of cheeses, though it’s probably best to just stick to bird feed.