Your data in use! Impacts of supplementary feeding on birds in our backyards

This year we had Masters student Ying Kiu Tong from the University of Melbourne working with us to look at the impact of bird feeding on bird communities.

To feed or not to feed is a question that comes up a lot! Supplementary feeding of wild birds is a common practice in Australia, with around 50% of households involved in some kind of supplementary bird feeding, despite it being generally frowned upon. There are concerns about nutritional issues, dependency and the spread of disease. Ying Kui used Birds in Backyards surveys from the Greater Sydney region between 2016 to 2021 to look at how the availablity of different types of foods might influence the bird communities people see in their gardens.

Around 25% of Birds in Backyard participants were feeding birds regularly, with seeds being the most common food, followed by meat and bread. Overall the common species that visit our backyards remained similar regardless of whether there was supplementary feeding or not. These common birds are what we would call urban exploiters, which means they dominate and survive well in urban areas and are often found in higher numbers in urban spaces than in their natural habitats. A few of these common birds are introduced species, including Common Mynas and Rock Doves (feral pigeons) but includes abundant native species like Australian Magpies, Noisy Miners and Sulphur-crested Cockatoos as well. Basically these birds are so abundant and widespread that they are in gardens all around Greater Sydney. Whether you feed them or not, they are likely to be in your space.

However there were some differences in the types of birds that visited gardens with food, and that also depended on the type of food provided.  When meat was provided in backyards, there were, unsurprisingly more carnivores, such as Laughing Kookaburras and Grey Butcherbirds, but, there were also fewer insect-eating species present. When seeds were provided, again, unsurprisingly you had more seed-eating birds, but also more fruit-eating species, compared to when seed was not provided. There can be some flexibility in diets of many birds, so fruit-eating birds like Satin Bowerbirds, will also eat other food types like seeds.

The size of the birds visiting when seed was provided was also different. There were more small native birds including Grey Fantails, Eastern Yellow Robins and Superb Fairy-wrens in gardens when seeds were provided (even if they may not be eating the seeds directly) and fewer small birds when meat was provided. This shows that yes, feeding is impacting the types of birds that visit our backyards with these impacts felt for smaller, less common native birds. 

So should you feed or not? 

Generally it is better to let birds forage naturally in your garden for their food. 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. Check out our bird-feeding guidelines for more information.


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