The act of feeding birds in your garden or elsewhere can be surprisingly contentious and controversial, especially in Australia.
A lot of what is reported and discussed is based on anecdotal intuition, rather than on evidence to back up the varieties of concerns and theories surrounding bird feeding. What’s more, the act of bird feeding, whether in our gardens, parks or elsewhere varies greatly from place to place and from time to time over the calendar year.
We will attempt to respond to some of the questions raised by the practice, with the caveat that the answers themselves are based around what relatively little is known.
Q: If I feed the birds, won’t they become dependent on the food I provide and refuse to migrate naturally?
A: It is true that there have been cases of some species of smaller birds lingering at bird feeders well into migration season, but there seems to be no evidence that migration is eventually influenced. Birds’ natural instinct to migrate is not dependent on or triggered by food sources or the lack thereof, but rather by the changes in the length of daylight. What’s more, seed-eating species tend to begin feeding on insects as they become more available during the season. There is no shortage of natural food sources during the changing of seasons.
Q: If I feed the birds, won’t they starve if, for any reason, I quit?
A: Many people have this concern, but again, there is no evidence that it is a valid concern, in fact, there is some evidence that it is not. However, in order to give one peace of mind and take a more careful approach to your back yard feeding, there is no harm in phasing our your feeding program/schedule, rather than ending it abruptly.
Q: If I feed the birds, won’t their numbers increase beyond what is naturally expected?
A: Generally this is not likely. Putting bird seed or other food in your garden simply provides another source of food for the wild birds. The question itself implies that in the absence of such seed or other food, there would be a significant starvation of birds. The problem here is that generally, when speaking in terms of those typical species most associated with backyard feeding, such starvation is very rare. Most starvation events are caused by severe weather conditions such as the icing of naturally occurring weeds and seeds.
Q: Doesn’t the concentration of birds on bird feeders, facilitate the spread of disease?
A: Yes, it certainly can and this is a valid concern. Disease amongst feeding birds is relatively rare, but there is some evidence that eye disease in finches in eastern North America, did spread to some other species and this could have occurred when the other species came within close proximity of the finches at bird feeders. While it might be tempting to feed birds that seem to be diseased and distressed, we recommend rather phasing out your feeding if diseases are notices or reported. That being said, the occurrence of contagious diseases amongst backyard feeding birds is the exception, not the rule.
Q: But what about birds getting sick from the food itself?
A: Birds are susceptible to some fungal spores, which can occur in some seeds and other foods provided. This risk is easily prevented by feeding clean, dry and fresh food and by ensuring that bird feeders are kept clean, especially during hotter months. Please refer to our Good Practice section for more information.
Q: Aren’t we opening the birds up to predation from pets and animals?
A: Bird feeding in your back yard causes a concentration of birds, with relatively large numbers sometimes congregating in relatively small areas. The species that tend to form these “crowds” tend to be the same species that naturally flock at these rates, with or without bird feeders, so it’s not entirely certain that any wild predators would be more likely to catch birds in a back yard setting compared to a natural habitat.
Domestic cats can be a more serious problem, although not all cats are adept at catching back yard birds. In order for cats to successfully hunt and catch back yard birds, they need to attack from cover. This is where the placement of your bird feeder is important. Please refer to our Good Practice for more on feeder placement. It is not fair to attract birds to dangerous situations, so if the danger cannot be eliminated or at least mitigated, then it is probably better not to feed the birds at all.
Q: What about bringing birds from the wild into urban areas, with all the risks that entails?
A: The largest risk in urban areas is windows. The main problem is that windows often reflect the environment and prevent the birds from seeing the glass itself. A bird’s brain focusses on a distant objects, such as a branch or the reflected sky as opposed to the glass. One can help prevent these collisions by blocking the reflectivity or by placing objects on the glass, even window feeders assist with this. Again, our Good Practice section provides more information on feeder placement.
Another problem is caused when birds can see through glass to habitat beyond, and again fail to focus on where the glass is, and so do not see it.
One must obviously try and avoid attracting birds to areas where there are severe risks such as pesticides or kids with bb guns for example but generally speaking, the suburban environment is no more hazardous than other landscapes birds are likely to forage or hunt for food in.