To feed or not to feed?

The issue of bird feeding is a very controversial one. Many people enjoy feeding birds in their garden, on their balcony or even at their windowsill, but this creates many unseen problems such as malnutrition, disease, and imbalanced populations of some species. Despite authorities telling people not to feed birds for decades – the fact is, Australians still continue to provide food for birds. We need to give some guidance on how to do it safely.

If you are going to feed birds, you should be aware of potential problems and consider how you can minimise the risk of harming the wildlife you want to help.

 

Dependency

Firstly – it is a myth that birds become dependant on us for food. Except in very rare circumstances, research shows that birds continue to search naturally for birds. In cases of extreme events such as bushfires – providing food, and more importantly water, is particularly important for the survival of wildlife.

 

Malnutrition

The types of foods we put out for birds are very rarely what they find naturally. There are a couple of items in particular that are known to cause problems for birds and should be avoided.

Mince: This might seem like a treat but it lacks nutrients that carnivorous birds would normally obtain from their natural diet of insects and the fur and bone of small mammals. Huge problems can arise if the adult birds raise their young on this diet as the juvenile birds can suffer from brittle bones due to insufficient calcium. Mince can also stick to the beaks of birds like Kookaburras and Tawny Frogmouths, leading to bacterial infection.

Honey/water mixes: these do not provide the complex sugars that a bird would get from the nectar of a flower.

Bread: This is just a filler. It contains nothing of nutritional value and instead simply fills the bird up.

 

Disease

Disease transition is a real risk with bird feeding and there have been outbreaks of illness overseas linked to bird feeders. If you must feed birds, ensure that you keep the area where they are fed very clean and well scrubbed daily using a bleach solution or specific wildlife disinfectant.

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. If you do have parrots with beak and feather disease visiting, immediately cease feeding and clean your feed station. You may also wish to contact your local wildlife rescue group if the bird is very sick and needs to be captured.

 

 

 

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.

 

So what should you do?

We know that people take great joy from feeding birds and that connection to nature is really important. Be aware of the potential problems and if you do want to feed your local birds ensure that:

  • Stations are placed out of the reach of cats and other predators.
  • Stations are cleaned daily and food removed after an hour (less if you are using a nectar mix as they spoil quickly). 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.
  • If feeding meat eating birds then 1. consider the impact they may have by hunting smaller birds and 2. use dry dog food or dog roll as these are the best alternatives currently available. Even better if it can be supplemented with an insectivore mix (like Wombaroo).
  • You cease feeding if large flocks (20+) birds begin feeding at the same time and you observe for any illness in the birds you are feeding.
  • 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 make it an occasionally treat (for you and the birds), not a daily event. Think of it as a Tim Tam and a cup of tea...

 

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. Whether you feed birds or not, please create great spaces for them which include habitat and water.

Download a factsheet for feeding birds here.

For more detail on what you should consider if you want to feed birds. Please read the book ‘Feeding the Birds at my Table’ by Darryl Jones.

 
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