Should you be feeding birds? The answer isn’t so simple

It’s easy to determine what you shouldn’t be feeding birds, but answering the question on whether or not we should be feeding them anything at all has scientists divided.
By Angela Heathcote February 1, 2018 Reading Time: 5 Minutes Print this page

LAST WEEK WE reported on the junk food we occasionally feed birds and the disease and dysfunction it can cause them. Fruits, breads, boneless meats and nuts, all failed the health test, which made readers ask “should we be feeding birds at all?” Determining what not to feed them, rather than whether we should be feeding them is a far more complex question.

Our interviewee,  Michelle Shaw, a nutritionist from the Taronga Animal Nutrition Centre, argued that, given that the food we tend to provide birds can have negative effects on their health, it was better to completely abstain from feeding birds, especially carnivorous species such as kookaburras that must eat whole prey items to maintain an important calcium and phosphorous balance. All Australian governmental, conservation and environmental bodies that we checked with agree.

But Dr Grainne Cleary, argues the issue isn’t straightforward.  She has studied the activities of urban birds and the people who feed them for 7 years. She says we need to take into account why exactly people are feeding birds and allow this to guide a realistic approach to some of the health issues raised by not only scientists and nutritionists, but also members of the public. Feeding birds, Grainne says, appears to improve some people’s mental health and it’s not easy to just stop.

Our first interactions with birds

“There is evidence that there are more dreamtime stories about birds than any other animal,” says Grainne, and this, she argues, is evidence that interactions with birds happened organically once humans first appeared on the continent and continued to flourish well into European settlement.

For Grainne, simply asking that people stop feeding birds is unrealistic. “We cannot go back to how it was before European settlement; it just won’t happen,” she says. Grainne points to a number of records dating back to early European settlement, emphasising how difficult it would be to sever these relationships.

“They [European settlers] found that the birds wanted to interact with them and wanted to know who they were. Our birds were busy exploring new dwellings and fields from the outset.

“They’re hard Aussie fighters. We dragged an ancient continent into industrial revolution in less than 300 years; the fact that we have birds surviving at all is a feat and they continue to adapt.”

The mental health benefits of feeding birds

Grainne’s extensive surveys of people who feed birds, the birds they feed and what they feed them, as well as when and why they do it, have provided important insights into the activity.

“Out of the 1600 people that answered the question about why exactly they fed birds, 58 per cent of them said they fed birds because it brought them joy, happiness and pleasure,”  she says. “If that’s the reason you’re feeding birds, it’s going to be very difficult to stop, especially in a world of so much gloom and doom.”

However, is improved mental health for humans, to the possible detriment of birds, justifiable? Taronga nutritionist Michelle says no.

“There are places where you can get closer to birds,” she says, suggesting aviaries. “And there are opportunities for people to volunteer with wildlife, where they can get more direct contact.”

Bird intelligence comes into play

In one of Grainne’s surveys she found that people feeding birds were most concerned about the birds becoming dependent on them for food. However, Grainne says, there is no evidence to suggest a bird would become totally dependent on one food source.

A 2006 study of the consumption of supplementary foods by Australian magpies found that while many magpies utilised suburban food stations, they continued to forage for and feed their chicks natural food.

The lead author of the paper Darryl Jones, who just released a new book titled The Birds at my Table, tells Australian Geographic that this was a powerful finding.

“This finding has been found in lots of other species since. They really aren’t using too much of the human provided food as baby food.

“These studies also show that the biggest concern of all – that birds will become dependent on the food we provide – just doesn’t happen.”

Grainne argues this comes down to our birds being far too intelligent:  “People think ‘oh the birds are going to get too lazy’ Wrong! Our birds are far too intelligent to become fat, couch-sitters waiting for handouts. It’s not going to happen.”

Michelle, however, says food selection is not a conscious decision-making process.

“It [food selection] is based on physiological feedback mechanisms they’re not conscious off. They will always go for high-energy food,” she says. “It’s true that they’re very smart, but in this case that works against them because they’re going to remember where they got that high-energy food from and they’re going to come back.”

Grainne says, however, that people simply aren’t feeding birds high-energy foods.

Of the 2500 people who answered the question in Grainne’s survey about what they fed birds, only 16 per cent said they fed them  ‘junk’  food, such as bread, rice and human food scraps.

“They already know that that’s not the best food. An entire 55 per cent of people fed commercial seeds or sunflower seeds. Another 60 per cent of people said they fed less than a cup of food to birds,” Grainne says.  “These people want to supplement the bird’s diet with food that won’t be detrimental to the majority of birds.”

rainbow lorikeet

(Image Credit: Pixabay)

Providing native plants and water

Native plants and water are some of the less controversial offerings to attract birds to your garden and are advocated by Michelle.

“We need to be happy seeing these animals in their natural environment and performing natural behaviours. That should be enough,” she says.

But Grainne argues that human interaction with wildlife is an important way to invoke a sense of responsible custodianship. “Some people don’t have big gardens and backyards that enable them to have plentiful native plants, or they rent, and those people need to be engaging with wildlife as well,” she says.

Climate change and habitat loss

When asked whether feeding was having adverse impacts on bird migration, Grainne explained that this was already heavily affected by climate change and extreme habitat loss. Supplementing food sources, she says, will become inevitable.

Last year, Michelle and her team at Taronga released a hundred regent honeyeaters into their natural habitat but had underestimated available food sources.

“We predicted that there was enough ironbark but there just wasn’t enough nectar, which we attributed to climate change,” she explains. “ It’s a big issue but one person in a two-block radius can’t solve it.”

To feed or not to feed?

If people aren’t satisfied with just viewing birds in their natural habitat performing natural behaviours, Michelle says,  we need to come up with new ways we can interact with birds that won’t have adverse effects for our native birds.

For Grainne, a blanket ban on backyard bird feeding is not the answer. People will continue to do it and we need to understand its affect and provide strict guidelines to those who regularly feed birds in their backyards or urban settings.

She adds that making healthy food more available on supermarket shelves, rather than just an ordinary cockatiel mix, will drastically improve bird health. 

For Darryl, analysing all these complexities and keeping bird health at the forefront of the debate is essential.

“Millions of people in this country feed birds everyday and they are not going to stop; these people often do it for strong ethical reasons and genuinely care about birds.

“On the other hand, there are serious and real problems about the spread of disease and inappropriate nutrition which the feeders need to be aware of.

“The problem is that in this country, you simply can’t ask for advice. The answer to “how” is always “don’t” and everyone knows that.”