In Australia, feeding wild birds can be a contentious and controversial issue, with conservationists and wildlife groups lending their voice to both sides of the debate. This is somewhat in contrast to the stance taken by agencies and conservation groups in the Northern Hemisphere where wildlife and bird feeding is actively promoted and encouraged. In Australia, there is no solid research base to support the formal opposition to wild bird feeding, with the majority of research remaining anecdotal with no scientific justification to back it up.
Despite debate, the feeding of backyard birds remains a popular pastime in Australia, with numerous studies finding that between 40% and 60% of Australian households actively participate in the feeding of garden birds. We at Nature Mates believe it’s therefore greatly important that those feeding their backyard birds (and other wildlife) exercise good practice to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our backyard mates.
It is important to help ensure that birds are retained in our urban and suburban areas. We have taken over a large proportion of land for housing, industry and farming, and natural food supplies have declined. Providing food for wild birds helps to redress the balance.
In addition to providing enjoyment and fostering interest in wildlife, feeding garden birds can contribute to their welfare and conservation. It is important however, that good practice is always exercised when selecting, installing and maintaining equipment and food, with particular focus on ensuring hygiene precautions are taken, to reduce the potential for spread of disease.
While birds will naturally visit any backyard, adding bird feeders and different food stations will attract more species, from parrots and rosellas to sparrows, honeyeaters, koels and other unique species, and many backyard birders keep lists to track the different species they see right at their doorsteps. The colours, songs and behaviours that birds bring with them can all be enjoyed by dedicated backyard birders, but there is much more to appreciate by feeding birds.
Depending on the number of bird feeders you have, the types of foods you offer and the birds that take advantage of your generosity, there are many benefits of bird feeding you can enjoy.
- Education: Feeding birds can be a fascinating educational activity for all ages. By changing bird feeder styles and food types you can learn more about the birds that visit, and just observing the birds will help you learn about behaviours, identifications, personalities and other aspects of your local avifauna and how birds change season by season.
- Insect Control: Birds eat much more than seed, suet and nectar, and feeding birds in your backyard also invites them to feast on the insects, worms, snails and spiders in your landscape. This can provide ideal organic pest control with little need for toxic insecticides or other harmful chemicals.
- Flower Pollination: Not only do birds eat insects that can help keep your landscape healthier, but they assist with flower pollination. This can result in more luxuriant, full flowerbeds and beautiful bird-friendly landscaping with less overall effort for gardening.
- Weed Control: Many small birds such as sparrows and finches eat tremendous amounts of seeds, especially from seed-bearing flowers or weeds that might be undesirable in your landscape. Feeding these birds will also attract them to the natural food sources in your landscape, including weeds.
- Photography: Photographers with an interest in nature subjects can enjoy a proliferation of poses right outside their windows when they feed the birds. Painters and other artists can also similarly benefit from feeding birds.
- Interacting With Nature: For many urban birders, the birds they see at their bird feeders may be the only wild animals they have the chance to interact with. This can be an ideal activity for senior citizens, individuals with limited mobility or young children to get their first exposure to nature.
- Offering a Helping Hand: While feeding the birds brings backyard birders many benefits, it also benefits the birds by replacing food sources that have been destroyed by development. When homes are built and landscaped, birds lose nesting spots, shelter and natural food sources, but proper feeding and bird-friendly landscaping can help replace those resources so the birds and birders can live together in harmony.
A wide variety of foods are commonly offered to garden birds. These include seeds, nuts, fruit and invertebrates (eg. worms) None of these alone provides a complete well-balanced diet. The aim is to provide a supplement to the birds’ natural diet rather than a complete alternative.
What is of most important however, is that only clean, fresh and nutritional food is provided. The quality of food can vary greatly due to variations in nutrient balance, and contamination with fungal toxins and infections. It is important to purchase foods from reputable manufacturers and to ensure that foods are stored properly in a clean, dry environment inaccessible to pests. Stay away from breads, meats , dairies and any artificial or processed products. There is a variety of bird seeds and other foods available through pet stores and supermarkets, be sure to focus on those quality mixes that are specifically aimed at wild birds, some pet bird food can be unsuitable. For a detailed guide on the different types of seeds and nuts, please see our Buying Guide.
Fresh fruit is also fine but be sure to remove any uneaten fruit before it begins to rot, preferably at the end of the day.
Amounts provided should allow for rapid turnover to reduce the chance of food becoming mouldy or contaminated. When possible, limit feeding time to intervals of approximately 15 -20 minutes. Avoid over-feeding and competition. Place a small quantity of food out for the birds either once or twice a day. Over-feeding can affect a bird’s health and it is important for birds to continue to forage and consume food naturally. If you have a number of different species in your garden, rather use a number of different bird feeders as t his will help to limit competition.
Birds can make use of bird feeders throughout the year. There are seasonal variations in their energy needs for keeping warm, for activity (feeding young), for growing new feathers, and for laying eggs. These demands are spread through the year so there is no great seasonal variation in daily food requirement.
The two main things to keep in mind when deciding where to place your bird feeder are: can you see the bird feeder well, and is the bird feeder in a safe location. The first of these is easy, but the second takes a bit more planning. You’ll want to make sure the feeder is in a place that’s relatively safe from window collisions and from predators.
Perhaps counterintuitively, bird feeders are safest when they’re closest to windows—because if a bird takes off from the bird feeder and hits the window, it won’t be going at top speed and has a better chance of surviving. Place bird feeders closer than 3 feet to a picture window (or even affixed to the glass or window frame), or farther than 30 feet from a window.
Bird feeders close to natural shelter such as trees or shrubs offer resting places for birds between feeding bouts and a quick refuge if a hawk flies through. Evergreens are ideal—their thick foliage buffers winter winds and offers year-round hiding places from predators.
Be careful not to locate your bird feeder too close to cover, though. Nearby branches can provide jumping-off points for bird-hungry cats. A distance of about 10 feet seems to be a good compromise, but try experimenting. You can provide resting and escape cover for ground-dwelling birds by providing loosely stacked brush piles near your bird feeders.
Common diseases of garden birds are spread by contamination of food with the droppings or saliva of infected birds. The risk increases when many birds feed at the same places day after day for long periods. To minimise the risks:
- Use several feeding sites, to reduce numbers at any one place
- Rotate between feeding sites, so not all are in constant use — rest periods will help to reduce infection levels
- Clean and disinfect bird feeders/feeding sites regularly, especially in the months January to May. Rinse and air-dry bird feeders before re-use
- Maintain careful personal hygiene. Brushes and equipment used for cleaning bird feeders, tables and baths should not be used for other purposes and should be kept and used outside. Rubber gloves should be worn and hands should be washed afterwards (some diseases can also affect humans and pets).
Ensure that water is fresh and kept in a cool area of the garden as one needs to consider the effect of high temperatures on a contaminated water supply. Keep water baths and dispensers off the ground and not directly under trees and branches where birds are likely to perch in order to limit the chances of contamination. The water bath or dispenser needs to be cleaned thoroughly and the water supply replenished daily. Please monitor the quality of the water regularly.
Poorly maintained feeding stations may contribute to the occurrence of infectious disease and mortality.
It is essential to maintain a high standard of cleanliness for all feeding equipment, areas and food. Keep the bird feeder area clean of waste food and droppings. Clean and disinfect bird feeders regularly. Use one part liquid chlorine household bleach in nine parts of tepid water (a 10% solution) to disinfect. Make enough solution to immerse an empty, cleaned bird feeder completely for two to three minutes. Allow to air dry. Once or twice a month should do, but weekly cleaning may be needed if you notice sick birds at your feeders.
Clean the ground below your bird feeders too, to prevent a build-up of hulls, uneaten seeds, and other waste. Mouldy or spoiled food is unhealthy both for birds and for your outside pets. And bird food scattered on the ground can attract unwanted rodents.
Maintain fresh supplies through appropriate storage. Store feed appropriately in airtight, water and pest-proof containers, in a cool, dry area. Check it regularly and dispose of it if contamination has occurred. This is vital as some dry foods may already have some level of contamination.
If you notice sick birds or dead birds near your feeders, stop feeding. You can tell if you have a disease problem at your feeders because diseased birds are less alert and less active, they feed less and may cower on a feeder, they may be reluctant to fly, and their feathers do not appear to be in good shape. In this case, discard all seeds, rake or sweep up any uneaten hulls on the ground. The disease-causing Trichomonad protozoan, for example, can live for up to five days in food and several hours in water. Clean and disinfect all feeders, then wait a week before resuming feeding.
If you find a sick animal or bird, be cautious as birds naturally carry diseases. Contact your local Wildlife Rescue group in order to assista and/or collect the sick animal/bird. Here is a list of Wildlife Rescue groups.
ACT: Wildlife Carers Group Inc : 0406 056 099
NT: Wildcare Inc. : 08 8988 6121
NSW: WIRES : 1300 0WIRES or 1300 094 737
QLD: Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service : 1300 130 372
SA : Fauna Rescue of South Australia Inc on (08) 8289 0896
TAS: Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary : 03 62681184
VIC : Wildlife Victoria : 13 000 94535
WA: Wildcare Helpline :08 9474 9055
An avid bird feeder should consider their bird feeding equipment and food, only as a supplement to the natural environment and feeding that birds conduct during the day. As such, the floral environment serves as the greatest attractant for birds and should always be the first consideration when looking to attract birds to a garden. Select a variety of native plants to offer year-round food in the form of seeds, berries, nuts, and nectar. Try to recreate the plant ecosystem native to your area, one which allows birds to forage naturally. Native trees, shrubs and grasses will also offer protection and materials for nesting. Try to limit the use of chemicals on plants as insects are an important part of birds’ diets.