To feed or not to feed - is that really the question?

Author: Mike Bamford (Birds in Backyards Advisory Committee member and BirdLife Western Australia Vice Chair)

Feeding wild birds is something that brings pleasure to many people (and birds), but as with many of life’s pleasures, feeding birds is something that can be spoilt by excess. In extreme cases, feeding to excess can affect the health and well-being of birds, and while not on the same scale as the impact of habitat loss and feral predators, feeding ‘gone wrong’ is often discouraged by authorities in Australia. In some jurisdictions, it is even against the law. But this isn’t the case everywhere, and in parts of Europe and North America people are encouraged to feed birds and other wildlife. Such feeding is seen as important in maintaining biodiversity in altered landscapes such as towns and cities. Are Australians and Australian birds and other wildlife, not to mention the Australian authorities, that different? The answer probably depends on who you ask.

Opposition to the public feeding of wildlife probably stems from occasional examples of excess. The bakery that dumped hundreds of loaves of yesterday’s bread in a wetland ‘to feed the ducks’, resulting in a polluted wetland and, yes, dead ducks. The kindly elderly couple who put bowls of mince meat out for the Ravens and Magpies, resulting in unnatural mobs of these bossy birds taking over suburban streets and driving out other wildlife. The equally well-intentioned family who put out bowls of sugar water for honeyeaters, resulting in birds dying from nutritional deficiencies. And as for the couple who put out so much seed for white cockatoos that, when they were late with the food the birds ripped into the flyscreens; well they only had themselves to blame. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule, and considering that studies have found as many as 40% of households do feed wildlife, isn’t demonising that activity also a form of excess; an over-reaction that attempts to eliminate a means by which people can interact positively with wildlife because of the excesses of a few? If so many people want to feed wildlife, might it be better to harness that interest in a positive way, rather than trying to put a stop to it?

Biodiversity in towns and cities is well-recognised as being good for people. Whatever your political affiliation, green is good. Suburbs with green parks and gardens, and wildlife, promote human health. People report a greater sense of well-being and crime rates are reduced. Patients in hospital recover more quickly if they can see greenery and biodiversity; there is something fundamental in the human psyche that craves a connection with nature, and we do better for it.

Encouraging wildlife into our habitat is good for us, and there are many ways to achieve this. Gardens with lots of bushes and small trees provide birds with shelter and food, all the more so if local plants are used, and responsible cat ownership that is good for the cats is also good for the birds. Shelter can be provided ranging from boxes for birds and bats to bungalows for bandicoots, while providing a bowl of water can be a magnet for birds of all sizes. But what about providing food? That all depends on how you go about it.

In countries where feeding is allowed and even encouraged, people are advised on ‘how to go about it’. There is probably still excess but, on balance, hummingbirds on the east coast of North America and the songbirds that feature in Christmas cards and calendars in England may even be better off as a result of feeding. And people get a connection with nature that they could not have in any other way. It is not a question of whether or not to feed, but of how to go about it if you decide that you want to feed.

Excess is out. Obviously. Food provided by people should be a supplement, a little extra, and it needs to be of the right sort. It should be consumed within minutes so the birds spend

the rest of the day or even the next few days foraging naturally, and the food provided should be good for them. Hygiene is critical…for both the birds and you. Spilt food will attract rodents, which you probably don’t want, while dirty food containers may poison the birds you do.

Many people may want to feed birds and other wildlife; but they don’t know how. As a result, feeding can have unforeseen and unwanted consequences, but prohibiting activities that bring people pleasure has a patchy history of success. It may be better to educate people as to where, how, when and what they should feed wildlife so that they get the pleasure they seek, and wildlife may benefit as a result. Engage people with wildlife; don’t drive them away. With Australia’s terrible record when it comes to conservation, a little bit of well-managed positive action can’t be a bad thing; but education and management are the difference between success; and excess.


Golden rules for feeding wildlife

If you choose to feed wildlife, you need to do it well and be responsible to the wildlife and the human community. Here are some tips on doing it right.

· Natural food really is best. A garden with native plants will provide shelter, nectar for honeyeaters, and habitat for insects that the birds can eat. Plants that would have grown naturally in your area may be best of all, as the insects and birds are adapted to them. Very nectar-rich birds, like some hybrid grevilleas, can tip the balance the wrong way and you may get lots of the larger honeyeaters and nothing else. A combination of lots of shrubs, arranged in small thickets with open space between a few small eucalypts for canopy and a couple of bowls of water, may be all that is needed to give you and wildlife great pleasure.

· If you choose to take the next step and feed; do your research. There are several books on feeding wildlife in Australia and there is information on the internet. Check them out. And remember that feeding wildlife is a bit of work so it may be easier to let your plants do the heavy lifting.

· Only small amounts. The food should be consumed quickly so it is a little help to the wildlife but they do not become dependent. Half a cup of bird seed once a week might bring a pair of parrots into your garden each morning; any more than that and you could create a problem for yourself. A few mealworms a week to a pair of Willie Wagtails may be the difference between them staying around and even breeding; or leaving your area entirely.

· The right stuff. Find out what is good for the wildlife in your area. Nectar mix can be good for honeyeaters but must not be allowed to go off. Mince meat is not good for Magpies and can turn Ravens and Crows into suburban hoodlums. Try a handful of frozen peas instead, or just toss them the caterpillars you find in your vegie patch; they will soon learn to recognise your ‘gardening hat’. Store-bought ‘wild bird seed’ is usually better off left in the store, while small amounts of cut up fruit can be good for a range of birds, possums and bandicoots.

· Keep it clean. Food (and water) containers bowls must be clean. This can take a bit of work but is important. Critics of feeding wildlife raise the concern of animals getting sick from being fed the wrong or dirty food, while supporters of feeding wildlife may argue that starvation can also be bad for animals. They will leave before they starve, but is that what we want?

· Talk to your neighbours. You need to keep them happy too!

· Cut back or stop if needed. Watch what is going on. If a pair of parrots becomes a small flock; cut back.


You can download our feeding guidelines PDF here

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