To Feed or Not to Feed?

Many people enjoy feeding birds in their garden, on their balcony or even at their window sill, but this creates many unseen problems such as malnutrition, disease, and imbalanced populations of some species. Find out how to minimise these problems or, even better, avoid them altogether by providing more natural food resources for birds in your garden

Please note - there has been an outbreak of disease in Rainbow Lorikeets in Melbourne and these deaths are thought to be due to supplementary feeding. Further, it is thought that feeding stations are spreading this disease. Please avoid feeding Rainbow Lorikeets wherever possible and if you come across a sick or dead bird, please contact the relevant authorities. See this article for more information.

Malnutrition and disease

Feeding birds too much artificial food may not provide adequate nutrition which can lead to health problems. An example is the feeding of steak to Kookaburras. This might seem like a treat but it lacks nutrients that they would normally obtain from their natural diet of insects and the fur and bone of small mammals. Steak is also very high in protein, so a little will go a long way for a Kookaburra, and malnutrition could result. Huge problems can arise if the adult birds raise their young on this diet as the juvenile birds can suffer from brittle bones. Feeding bread to birds (even ducks!) can cause problems with their digestive systems as the bread ferments in their stomachs and honey/water mixes do not provide the complex sugars that a bird would get from the nectar of a flower.

Diseases can also be spread inadvertently at feeding areas so, if you must feed birds, ensure that you keep the area where they are fed very clean and well scrubbed. Our parrots in particular can spread Psittacine beak and feather disease at unhygenic feed stations, particularly were large numbers of birds gather. This virus attackes the feather follicles and the cells that grow beaks and claws. Feathers become malformed and eventually fall out whilst beaks and claws grow uncontrollably and can crack and break, leading to infections and potentially stop the bird from being able to feed. The virus also suppresses the immune system, opening the bird up to a range of secondary infections. Those mangy, balding Sulphur-crested Cockatoos that you may occasionally see are infected with this disease.

Imbalanced populations

Think about the birds that we fed - they are the ones doing well anyway, the omnivorous (eat anything) opportunists such as Currawongs, Kookaburras and Magpies. Increased numbers of these larger, more aggressive birds in many urban areas can be attributed to artificial feeding. For example, Pied Currawongs and Magpies have increased dramatically in numbers over time, forcing out smaller species from many areas. Currawongs eat the eggs and chicks of small birds. The quantity of food available also helps those being artificially fed to become very successful breeders, increasing their numbers further, which puts even more pressure on the smaller birds.

Is feeding birds good for people?

Yes, many people really enjoy the contact they have with the birds and regard them as friends. Often it is the only contact they have with wild animals and it helps them to feel more connected to the world.

So what is the best answer?

Birds in Backyards recommends that you don't feed birds artificially but preferably plant for birds, as it is much healthier for birds to glean natural food from your garden. Use our plant and garden information to help you choose a range of bird-attracting plants suitable for your garden. Research shows that birds will not starve if you stop feeding them, even whilst being fed, they also continue to hunt for food naturally. Still, if you are concerned, wean yourself off feeding by cutting down the frequency with which you do so until you are only feeding very infrequently or not at all and follow the guidelines below:

Ensure that:

  • Stations are placed out of the reach of cats and other predators.
  • Stations are cleaned daily and food removed after an hour. Vary the time of day in which you provide the food.
  • Good quality food is used such as commercial nectar mixes or seed mixes. The cheaper supermarket seed does not contain sufficient nutrition for birds.
  • You cease feeding if large flocks (20+) birds begin feeding at the same time.
  • Pets are fed indoors or remaining food is removed. Common Mynas and other birds regularly eat pet food so we should limit their access to it.
  • You get out in your garden and create habitat for your bird life.
  • You make it an occasionaly treat (for you and the birds), not a daily event.

A garden that provides natural food for birds such as one with native grasses to provide seed, mulch to encourage insects and small-flowering locally native shrubs to feed honeyeaters is much better for our whole bird community than one that feeds only a few potentially problem birds.

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