Are bird feeders like stockyard feedlots?

I suppose in an odd sort of way it is similar to comparing a feed lot to free range, but there are differences. The goldfinches, cardinals, house sparrows, and white-winged doves that go for the sunflower seeds, thistle seeds, and millet that we provide in back yard feeders arrive voluntarily. The mockingbirds that flit through the front yard yaupon for its bright red berries are also free to come and go. I love the backyard feeders. I like to see the hordes of goldfinches gorging on sunflower seeds, which they like much more than those thistle seeds that are supposed to be just perfect for them. I love the excitement when the Cooper’s hawk arrives, and everyone flies off.

But I ultimately prefer the front yard feeder, the small yaupon we planted under the live oak about a decade ago. A mockingbird or two carefully harvests the berries. We also see ruby-crowned kinglets eating them occasionally, when they tire of gleaning for insects in the higher oak tree leaves. I can tell a kinglet without seeing it, from what Cin-Ty would call its jizz. No other bird moves quite like it does through the branches and leaves. Learn a bird’s movement, and you’ll always know it.

The front yard feeder is more subtle. The birds are not so easy to see, or so numerous. But the whole situation is more satisfying because it is more natural. I can half feel that the insult to the fifth of an acre we live on is less if we plant native trees all around. The front yard feeder is easier too, though it is nearly empty now, in late February, the berries all eaten. The backyard feeder gets replenished daily.

We plant turk’s cap, Malvaviscus drummondii, under the back windows, and in the backyard forest and let its red flowers feed the hummingbirds. Somehow we’ve never gone to artificial feeders. We can’t keep any hummingbirds here, so it is a thrill to see a migrant has paused to sip at our flowers for a few days. I spent 10 minutes scrolling back through my photos, through multiple trips to Europe, Yucatan, Ecuador, the Galapagos, the Rockies, and more places still, looking for a simple photo of my own back yard with the Malvaviscus blooming. Why do we imagine we’ll want to remember all those exotic places more than our own sweet home? I never did find one, but I did find a budding Malvaviscus from Quintana, a bird sanctuary just down the coast.

My turkscap are all native, and all originally grown from seeds I brought from an Austin plant, at my study site at Brackenridge Field Laboratory, a place I spent years in the 1970s studying wasps, a topic for another entry. My friend Mary George studied the foraging habits of hummingbirds on these very flowers.

For now, I’ll keep both the feedlot, and the berries, for both are free range. I wonder what kinds of birds I’ll get in St. Louis, and what the feeders will be.


Backyard gluttons, a flock of winter goldfinches.


These cardinals have already paired up, and are stocking up at a backyard feeder.


The front yard yaupon has lots of berries, and makes a completely natural bird feeder for skittish mockingbirds.


Even lantana is more natural than a feeder, and attractive to this lovely butterfly – which one?


A budding malvaviscus.

About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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2 Responses to Are bird feeders like stockyard feedlots?

  1. The butterfly is a Gulf Fritillary.

  2. Joan, love your new blog. I am an active member of a birding community in West Texas that started over fifty years ago, the Midland Naturalists ( I administer the website now. Take a look at some of the rare birds I have photographed in just the last few weeks: Several of our members are expert birders and do not need to use field guides which really impresses me. One young man from the group, Forrest Rowland, became a professional birder who leads birding trips all over the world. You can tell your ornithology students that there *is* life after graduate school and they *can* get a job when they graduate by leading birding trips for eco-tourists.


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