Why Bird Feed Can Be a ‘Gateway Food’ for Bears

The easy buffet draws bears to human habitats. If you live in bear country, experts suggest putting away feeders in seasons the mammals are active.
A bear grabs a hanging bird feeder full of seeds in its mouth, knocking it over.
A grizzly bear investigates a bird feeder in Bozeman, Montana. Photo: Gregg Losinski/Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Geoff LeBaron used to love watching Rose-breasted Grosbeaks at his backyard bird feeder in western Massachusetts. However, a few years ago, unwanted guests started showing up: American black bears on the hunt for easy, high-caloric meals.

LeBaron, director of Audubon’s Christmas Bird Count, tried putting the feeders away at night, hoping bears would stay away during the day. But after hanging the feeders one morning, his indoor cat hissed and puffed up. Looking out the window, he saw a female bear munching on the seeds from an already-destroyed feeder. “I must have almost handed it to her,” he says. With the constant presence of bears in LeBaron’s yard, he stopped feeding birds except for a hummingbird feeder that the bears have yet to find.

Facing limited selections of natural food resources, both black bears and grizzlies, called brown bears in Alaska, are learning the perks of urban and suburban life. “Generally, wherever there's bear country, there's the potential to have problems with bears coming and getting into the bird feeders,” says Kyle Garrett, a large carnivore biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

Black bear populations and bear-human interactions are increasing in many areas, leading bears to become more accustomed to people as they seek out food. Bird feeders, garbage, compost, barbecues, fish smokers, and pet food lure bears into yards, porches, and even inside houses. With their exceptional climbing skills and a higher tolerance for people, black bears are the usual culprits, but grizzlies also break into feeders on rarer occasions.

Many wildlife officials say you should completely forgo feeding birds if you live amongst black bears or grizzlies. If you still choose to put out feeders, only set them up in winter when bears are in hibernation. It’s best to not entice bears to your yard during their foraging months in the spring, summer, and fall.

Why Bird Feeders?

As smart, opportunistic omnivores with a diverse and flexible diet, hungry bears are drawn to feeders for the same reasons as birds: Filled with seeds, feeders mimic natural food sources in easy-to-access containers. A standard seven-pound feeder is jam-packed with as much as 18,000 calories.

With noses five times as strong as ours, bears can smell seeds and hummingbird feeder nectar—which Michelle Dennehy, spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, calls “energy drinks for bears”—from miles away.

Jaclyn Comeau, wildlife biologist and black bear project leader for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, calls bird seed a “gateway food" causing bears to become reliant on humans for sustenance. Once a bear has found a feeder, it will keep checking if it’s filled with food. Bears are usually cautious around people, “but that weariness can start to diminish if they start eating right next to us all the time,” Comeau says. Bears stop seeing humans as a threat and begin acting aggressively to protect food sources.

When Can You Put Out a Bird Feeder?

Check with your state wildlife officials to know the safest time to put out feeders. In the fall, bears spend up to 20 hours a day foraging and gearing up for winter hibernation, so if you put out a feeder when bears aren't hunkered down for hibernation, you are asking for trouble. “[Bears] are trying to get fattened up again, so it's not their fault,” Dennehy says. “We as humans need to do what we can to not draw them into places that are inappropriate, like residential areas.”

Weather and location can alter when bears enter hibernation. And with winters becoming warmer due to climate change and more food resources available year-round, more bears are not hibernating deeply—if at all. Yet another reason to check locally where you live.

A small gray bird perches in a bush of bright red berries holding one in its beak.
Northern Mockingbird feeding on winterberry. Growing native plants to attract birds is a great alternative to feeders. Photo: Will Stuart

In general, in bear county, “there’s really no safe way to feed birds without attracting bears,” says Riley Woodford, information officer with the Division of Wildlife Conservation for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But if you really want to hang a feeder, there are ways to make it less alluring and more challenging for bears to reach. 

Bears love pungent black oil sunflower seeds and suet, so try filling your feeders with seeds that they dislike, such as strong-flavored Nyjer and thistle, LeBaron says. Adding a catch underneath a bird feeder is also important to collect seeds that might spill over and be discovered by a foraging bear. 

It also helps to hang feeders 10 feet off the ground and, depending on the expert you ask, four to 10 feet away from any tree trunks or poles. “That just helps minimize the chance of bears being able to reach out and grab the bird feeders,” Garrett says. Others advise only feeding birds during the day, but as LeBaron learned, bears will still come. “The bears around here anyway, they’re active 24/7,” he says.

In bear country, there’s always a risk to hanging feeders, even with bear-proofing. If a bear smells a feeder but can’t reach it, it may linger in search of other foods. It’s best to not leave out pet food, trash cans, fallen tree fruit, or fish smokers and barbecues (but if you do, keep them very clean).

Dangers for People and Bears

If your feeder does attract a bear to your property, stay safe in a house, car, or garage. Try to scare the bear by shouting or banging pots and pans and when it has left, report the incident to your state wildlife agency. Take down the feeder for a couple of weeks at a minimum—the bear will likely come back. In extreme cases, bears have broken into people’s homes, such as one that ripped out a window and entered a kitchen in Vermont this summer. The bear was likely looking for “additional enticing odors” from the kitchen, Comeau says.

Habituated bears are also more vulnerable to collisions with vehicles and conflicts with people defending their homes or livestock. After losing their fear of humans, bears end up in bad situations, either relocated or more often, euthanized. “Even if you remove them and move them to a new location, there's a good chance they could still seek out food sources near people's homes,” says Rachel Leightner, wildlife outreach coordinator for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Division. 

Cultivate Native Plants Instead

Despite the risks of bird feeders in bear country, Woodford, who loves watching Dark-eyed Juncos and Black-capped Chickadees overwintering in Alaska, understands why people want to use them. “It's always a little sad in the spring when you have to take the feeder down,” he says.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other ways to attract birds without tempting bears. Create a garden of native plants, and put out bird baths, dust baths, and nest boxes. Native plants and nest boxes offer protective cover for birds, too. (Use Audubon's native plants database to find the best options for your home.)

Searching for birds in their native habitats outside of your home is another great way to see wildlife. Find a new birding spot at a local park, nature reserve, or hiking area, and bring binoculars if you have them. While it can be more challenging to see birds this way, it's also rewarding. And better yet, you'll be helping to keep bears—and yourself—out of harm's way.