December 13, 2016 10:12 AM

Wild bird feeding has become a great way to bring wild animals right into your backyard. The industry is also seeing more than $3 billion dollars spent annually on birdseed alone. As popular as bird feeding is, few people think about the negative impacts that feeding could have on the birds.

In a recent interview with Utah Public Radio (UPR), Dr. Travis Wilcoxen, associate professor of biology at Millikin University, offered insight into wild bird feeding, feeder sites and birdseed.

Millikin Wild Bird Research

"We definitely saw that although, in general, the birds at the feeder sites had some health benefits of the seed, they also tended to contract disease at a higher rate and spread disease at a higher rate than at the sites without the feeders," Dr. Wilcoxen said. "Just like any animal that comes into close contact with other ones in high densities, it increases the risk of disease transmission, and that's certainly what we saw at our feeder sites."

From spring 2011 to spring 2014, Dr. Travis Wilcoxen and Dr. David Horn, professor of biology at Millikin, led a study that explored how the feeding of wild birds influences the health of individual birds at forested sites in central Illinois.

Millikin Wild Bird Research

The study compared three forested sites, where supplemental food was provided, with three forested sites where no supplemental food was provided and observed changes in the individual health of birds.

Data from wild birds was collected in 2011, 2012 and spring 2013. Students and faculty went back in spring 2014 after feeders were removed to see how the health of the birds had changed at the sites almost a year after the feeders were gone.

They determined that the individual health of birds improved with supplemental feeding, including reduced stress and rapid feather growth. Both positive and negative impacts of wild bird feeding were found, and birds that had access to supplemental food were in better physical condition. Additionally, the negative effects that were found, such as increased disease among birds, may be lessened by hobbyists engaging in safer bird feeding practices.

Millikin Wild Bird Research

Dr. Wilcoxen noted, "One of the important findings was that once the feeders were taken down we saw no evidence of a crash in the bird populations or their health. The birds were using the feeders as a supplement and not relying on them exclusively as a food source."

Click here to listen to Dr. Wilcoxen's recent interview with Utah Public Radio.