To feed or not to feed. This is an interminable question with too many
fors and againsts.
However having spent the first half of my life in England, and now with
a son who lives in Putney London and regularly feeds the local birds,
trying hard to keep the grey squirrels at bay, and a second son in
Normanhurst Sydney, and myself first in Sydney Newtown and now
Gloucester NSW, I have experienced/witnessed this in many good and bad ways.
As Wim Wader pointed out, it is essential to feed birds during very cold
weather in the northern winters when food is in short supply and much
habitat has been lost or is covered in snow. This is particularly so the
further north you go with very short dark days. My family lived in
Surrey and we always put out nuts, suet balls, or bits of meat scraps
which were eagerly taken by woodpeckers, robins, tits, blackbirds,
thrushes, etc. but only in winter.
When I first arrived in Sydney I was immediately struck by the much
improved annual conditions for birds, except for those badly affected by
loss of habitat - wetlands drained, forests logged flat, urban
development removing native vegetation, etc., and the love of people
with gardens for expanses of closely mown grass. so-called traditional
English flowers (that have been garnered from all around the world so
hardly English), and plantings of small trees and shrubs with lots of
space around them so that the mower can easily cut the grass. This
leaves little in the way of all year round good foraging for birds and
exposure to predation, particularly for little birds. Larger birds often
Whatever you feel about feeding native Australian birds, you must
remember the following facts which are well proven -
Our small woodland birds are in sharp decline. They need woodlands and
lots of undergrowth. They are killed easily in the open by cats, big
predatory birds such as ravens, butcherbirds, kookaburras and raptors,
as well as snakes, and so need dense shrubbery - particularly native
shrubs as these contain the insect life they eat. Exotic shrubs and
trees often do not attract native insects. I have an acacia in which
thornbills, fairy-wrens, honeyeaters, whistlers and fantails spend a lot
of time searching and finding caterpillars etc. Acacias are diffilcult
in urban gardens as they tend to die....I must have lost about 10 in the
14 years I've developed a garden specifically to provide safe habitat
for these species.
Bigger birds like magpies, corvids, raptors, butcherbirds, kookaburras
(although these last have been reported much less often recently),
cuckoo-shrikes, figbirds, large honeyeaters, cockatoos, parrots, cope
better in these open grassy gardens and are the ones that benefit by
being fed. This enables them to breed more often each year, produce more
successful adults, and sadly most like giving their nestlings the
nestlings of smaller birds to eat.
If you regularly feed, you will find you have lots of these larger birds
around your house, and very likely the cockatoos (particularly
Sulphur-crested) will get bored as they don't have to work hard to find
food, and will take a liking to any woodwork on the outside of your
house. They destroy wooden deck rails, pick out flashing on roofs,
pulls flowers to pieces, eat green fruit on your fruit trees, tomatoes
and corn. Not just for fun but also to keep their bills sharp which they
usually do by foraging under bark or in soil.
Then there is the fight for hollows in trees for nesting species. There
is a fair amount of evidence of bigger birds ousting smaller birds from
hollows - this has been observed with galahs being kicked out of nesting
hollows by the more feisty Major Mitchell cockatoos, and no doubt
happens with your local common hollow nesting species. Tree hollows are
in short supply due to the removal of old trees, and gliders and possums
add to the problem by moving in and eating the eggs and chicks.
The other factors are transmission of disease, as detailed concisely by
Simon Robinson. How many times a week do you clean your feeders? I
know quite a few people who seldom or never do. I have bird baths
which I scrub out when they get grotty but I don't use disinfectants, so
I am also guilty. Reason is I don't want to pour this disinfectant rich
water into the surrounding soil. I never feed. I have a small country
town urban garden that has frequent visits from over 50 birds, more in
summer. Daily visitors include 3 thornbills species, white-browed
scrubwrens, superb fairy-wrens, willie wagtails, grey fantails, lewins
and yellow-faced honeyeaters, red wattlebirds, figbirds, orioles,
black-faced cuckoo-shrikes, satin bowerbirds, white-headed pigeons,
bar-shouldered doves, crimson and eastern rosellas, king parrots,
galahs, golden whistlers, red-browed finches and exotics common mynas
and house sparrows. Migratory species include dollarbirds, rufous
whistlers, leaden flycatchers, noisy friarbird and sacred kingfisher.
Occasional visitors bring in another mixed bag so there is always
something to chek on. This season it included an emerald dove eating the
sandpaper fig ftuit, and the mulberry attracts brown cuckoo-doves and
The two neighbouring gardens consist of a stretch of well mown lawn with
a few flower beds lining the edges, but one side has a flourishing
bottle brush that the larger honeyeaters love, and the other is unkempt
as currently tenanted, and contains a lilly pilly, olive (little birds
nest in these as seldom disturbed) and fig trees and sundry oranges and
lemons. These also provide foraging for the birds.
Since I moved to Gloucester town in 2002 I have noticed an increase in
little corellas, spotted turtle-doves, common mynas (we are currently
trapping these), crested pigeons, galahs, rainbow lorikeets, rock and
white-headed pigeons (note all larger birds), and a decline in
double-barred finches, variegated fairy-wrens, jacky winters, grey
shrike-thrush and fairy martins (all small birds).
My garden contains 90% native trees and plants and my bird list (seen or
heard from the back deck) is about 137, which includes single visits by
wompoo fruit-dove, rose and flame robins, a pair of regent honeyeaters,
black-faced cuckoo,and a common blackbird (first sighting in Gloucester).
So what am I really saying? Don't feed birds in Australia but make sure
they have a constant supply of drinking and bathing water, particularly
in our increasingly hot weather. And remember to wash these out from
time to time. Plant natives, sit back on your deck with your binoculars
handy and enjoy what this brings in.
Penny, Gloucester, NsW
Remember that bread is very bad for some species, and particularly so
for kangaroos (not birds !), and never leave your dog or cat food in the
open, on the kitchen back steps, where birds like mynas eat it.
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