We are often encouraged to refrain from feeding wild animals because they quickly lose their fear of humans and begin to view people as sources of food. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s newsletter Wild Rhode Island recently made the point that feeding wildlife does more harm than good. And they’re right, of course.

People who feed coyotes, for instance, are helping to increase an already abundant population of the animals and making them behave in unnatural and unpredictable ways, sometimes placing people and pets in harm’s way. The same is true when we leave our trash cans uncovered and accessible to bears, raccoons, skunks and other mammals. They can become a serious nuisance.

When these animals find suburbia – and even urban areas – to their liking, they are much more likely to become roadkill or be legally killed as nuisance animals. So feeding wild animals clearly does little to benefit them.

But what about feeding songbirds in our backyard? Why does it appear to be less of a concern when the wildlife we are feeding have wings and feathers rather than fur and four legs? An entire industry has even sprung up to support those, like me, who enjoy attracting and feeding the wild songbirds that live in their neighborhoods.

Some communities around the country have enacted ordinances against feeding birds to discourage them from becoming a nuisance or from attracting pests like rats. But other than prohibiting the feeding of waterfowl for health and safety reasons, Rhode Island hasn’t taken that step.

The appropriateness of bird feeding is a question I’ve pondered quite a bit lately – and not just because I only recently discovered how much I was spending. But I haven’t yet taken down my feeders, and I probably won’t.

An informal survey of several biologists I know raised modest concerns about bird feeding. They noted that songbirds that come to feeders are at greater risk of death from accidentally flying into windows; they can more easily spread diseases when birds congregate at feeders; and bird-eating hawks find feeders an easy place to grab a meal. The biologists also questioned the nutritional value of the food we offer. But not one advised against bird feeding in winter, and all of them maintain bird feeders in their own yards.

A recent analysis of the issue by Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology found clear benefits to feeding birds. Based on 30 years of data from its Project FeederWatch citizen science program, researchers found that almost all of the regular feeder visitors, like cardinals, chickadees and downy woodpeckers, are quite common and their populations are healthy. If feeding them were harmful, the opposite would likely be true.

Unfortunately, those bird species that are in most need of conservation action are species that seldom, if ever, come to bird feeders – mostly insect-eating birds that migrate to the tropics in winter. So while feeding them may not be harming your backyard birds, it also isn’t helping those that need it most.

But that’s not a reason to avoid feeding songbirds. Maintaining bird feeders is one of the easiest ways to remain connected to the natural world. And those who feed birds often become interested in other wildlife and environmental issues, which ultimately leads to more support for conservation programs. That’s exactly how I got started writing about wildlife.

So grab a bag of sunflower seed and share it with your backyard birds this winter. Although they don’t really need the supplemental food to survive, they’ll probably appreciate the free buffet.

Naturalist Todd McLeish has been writing about wildlife and the environment for more than 25 years. His latest book is “Narwhals: Arctic Whales in a Melting World.”

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