Should we feed our backyard birds?

Corellas feeding

Whether it be providing a sugary nectar solution for hummingbirds in South America, seeds for tits in Europe or a piece of raw meat for kookaburras in Australia, the feeding of wild birds is a common practice throughout much of the world. In many cases, this supplementary food is an important additional resource for the birds in times of food shortages. For example, winters in Europe can be long and harsh, and food for seed and insect-eating birds can be scarce. Many leading bird conservation authorities therefore encourage people to set up a feeding station in their backyard over the winter months, until the warmer months bring plentiful food supplies again. Research has shown that supplementary feeding is now so widespread that a wide range of significant ecological impacts are being detected, including not only increased survival over winter, but also range expansions, changes in behaviour and the occurrence of populations of birds that could not be sustained by natural food sources alone.

Given these benefits of feeding wild birds, surely our Australian birds would benefit from a helping hand too. Right? Well, no. Probably not. Feeding is generally discouraged in Australia and this has to do with the costs and benefits of feeding wild birds. The benefits, as outlined above, are obvious. But bird feeding is also associated with many costs. Firstly, feeders pose an unnatural situation by providing a constant food supply from a very small access point. Birds may therefore become dependent on the food source and not be able to cope when the food supply stops. The high amount of food can also encourage unnaturally high densities of birds of different species, which can become aggressive to each other and to humans. The close proximity of many bird species can also encourage the spread of diseases, especially when feeders aren’t cleaned properly. Another major issue is that the diet of many bird species is highly variable, whereas the food provided at feeders is either not diverse enough, or of low nutritional value. This can potentially reduce the health of birds, although some research suggests feeding can improve bird health. Lastly, a poorly-maintained feeder can attract pests, such as aggressive introduced birds or rodents.

So why the difference between Australia and other parts of the world? The costs of feeding birds probably also exist in Europe, but the benefits of feeding (i.e. potentially saving birds from starving) may outweigh these costs. In Australia, however, our relatively mild and invariable climate means that birds generally have a constant food supply and the risk of starvation is low. Supplemental feeding therefore isn’t usually necessary. In regions where the Australian climate does reduce food supplies (e.g. in alpine winter areas or in arid areas during times of drought) many Australian bird species either have seasonal migration to areas with better conditions, or are nomadic and follow rainfall and areas where food is bountiful.

Feeding wild birds in Australia probably benefits people more than it does wildlife. This can therefore lead to conflicts between what is best for wildlife and what is best for humans, as attracting wildlife to gardens is a much loved pastime for many people. If you do wish to provide additional resources in your garden that will help attract birds, consider installing a bird bath instead. Water is often scarce in Australia and providing a reliable water source can be much more beneficial than additional food.