Monday 28 April 2014 4:52PM
Up to 80 per cent of Australian households are involved in some kind of bird feeding. So are we creating a generation of bird bludgers dependent on handouts? Associate Professor Darryl Jones takes a look at the science behind backyard bird feeding.
It’s a most unlikely setting for a heated national controversy. Some regard it as misguided and even dangerous. So what is 83-year-old Mrs Rosine Jennings up to that raises such ire from her neighbours and critics beyond?
Every morning a little after dawn, Mrs Jennings carefully prepares a platter of cheese pieces, German sausage and diced heart which she places on a small platform on the balcony of her inner suburban Brisbane apartment. Cup of freshly brewed English Breakfast tea in hand, she sits a few metres away, awaiting her special visitors: a pair of magpies. They usually arrive within minutes. ‘Isn’t it marvellous!’ she declares. ‘Nature, right here in the middle of the city—and to think that some people say that it’s wrong!’
In this instance, ‘some people’ refers to Jack Miller from the neighbouring apartment. In Mr Miller’s forthright opinion, Ms Jennings is ‘a right nutter’.
‘These birds are all common,’ he says. ‘They don’t need any help. And all this feeding is doing is making the bloody things dependent on handouts! It’s a disgrace!’
Mr Miller and Ms Jennings represent two sides of the fence in what is a very Australian controversy: the feeding of wild birds. It’s a peculiar dilemma in this country because, although the sanctions are unofficial and informal, everyone seems to be aware that it’s not really acceptable. There are many reasons for that: the types of foods are wrong, it spreads disease, it encourages the wrong species; and, most prominent of all, feeding leads to dependency on human-provided foods.
These concerns are familiar to feeders the world over. What is interesting is that the negative is unquestionably the predominant perspective in Australia. We all know we shouldn’t feed, and this makes us truly unusual in terms of bird conservation and welfare. In the Northern Hemisphere, the clear message is that the feeding of birds is both kind and good. Indeed, all the major bird and conservation organisations—the British Trust for Ornithology and the Audubon Society, as prominent examples—actively and passionately advocate the feeding of birds, and claim it as the act of any genuine conservationist: ‘If you care about birds, feed them!’
That message has clearly been heeded; a range of surveys of wild bird feeders in North America and Europe show that between 45 and 75 per cent of households are actively engaged in feeding birds at home. Australians, with the ‘feeding is bad’ message ringing in our ears are apparently different from the rest of the world. This was noted with some fascination by British ornithologist Andrew Cannon in a paper on gardens as places for bird conservation. He quotes an undisclosed Australian source as saying: ‘Generally, the more conservation-minded and knowledgeable individuals in Australia do not feed.’
What is truly remarkable about this summation of our national position is not so much the attribution, but the fact that it is so fundamentally wrong. For despite the clarity of the anti-feeding message here, the reality is that the participation rate is about the same as everywhere else. A number of surveys found that between 38 and 80 per cent of households spend their hard earned cash on attracting birds to their backyards. The question is why.
At the most mundane level, many birds are thoroughly adept at spotting foraging opportunities. Discarded food scraps will often attract an eager scavenger. And once these animals are noticed, an almost innate reaction seems to be offer a little something: a few chips for the seagulls, sandwich crusts for the ducks. You can see such public interactions in parks or picnic grounds the world over—with or without ‘don’t feed the wildlife’ signs.
It is, however, somehow different when the interaction is in the private intimacy of one’s backyard. By intentionally offering food to attract wild birds to our back yards, we seem to be seeking something more than a casual encounter. Inviting wild birds to share our table suggests something potentially deeper. For some it’s just a chance simply to see beautiful birds up close; for others it’s a heart-felt assistance to apparently hungry birds. And it can also be a profoundly personal experience—a way of connecting with nature.
A few years ago, my colleague Peter Howard and I studied the motivations of bird feeders in Brisbane. Among the most powerful explanations offered by the people we interviewed was what we academically labelled a form of ‘environmental atonement’. Humans had caused so much damage to the natural world, these people explained, that feeding the wildlife was one way of giving something back, a personal attempt to redress the balance. This powerful component of the feeding story has since been identified among feeders throughout the world. Feeders feed for a variety of different reasons, but many care strongly about their birds, and some, at least, do so for broader conservation reasons.
And caring is probably how it all began. In the harsh winters of the Northern Hemisphere the plight of those clearly vulnerable creatures was all too obvious. Offering crumbs to starving robins in the snow would always have been commonplace, a humane gesture to helpless victims gathered at the back door. Slightly more elaborate homemade concoctions such as suet or peanut balls have been widespread in North America and Europe for a least the last couple of centuries. But that was the offering of familiar items from the domestic kitchen, only in winter. Today, all that has changed dramatically.
Beginning in the prosperous post-war decades, a specific and dedicated industry developed to serve and promote the feeding of birds. This has been most evident in the UK and US. The bird seed industry is currently worth over a US$10 billion. American households now distribute over 500,000 tonnes of seed to suburban birds annually. In the UK alone, enough seed is offered to support 30 million great tits, about six times the actual population of the species. There is also now a distinct push from the industry—but also from key bird and conservation organisations—to feed year-round.
A big part of this stems from conservation perspectives. It is argued that anthropogenic feeding supports populations of species which would otherwise be in worse shape. This has some support in places like the UK, where the single-most important bird habitat is now domestic gardens. There is strong evidence that some threatened birds—such as the song thrush—are surviving substantially because of human-provided food.
But this special case only highlights the stark reality that almost all wild bird feeding advantages the species which are already present and doing well. This is as true in Birmingham and Seattle as it is in Ballarat and Newcastle. Although Australians do feed birds on farms and in regional townships, the overwhelming majority of feeders live in the suburbs of our larger cities. This means that the birds that are potentially available to visit our backyards have already been through the filter of urbanisation. Although there will always be local exceptions, it is highly probable that the species most likely to visit your feeder will be big, aggressive, generalists that have long discarded their innate fear of people. These are the characteristics associated with success in the strange artificial landscape of the urban environment. Put out seed in whatever your city and I predict rainbow lorikeets, crested pigeons and possibly cockatoos; if it’s meat or cheese, expect magpies, butcherbirds and kookaburras.
Which brings us back to Mr Miller and Ms Jennings and their endless arguments; for one, the provision of food is an attempt to get close to wild creatures and possibly assist their welfare. For the other, it’s a potentially dangerous and selfish pastime. So surely, this is simply a matter of collating the evidence and settling this so-called controversy like scientists.
However, the unexpected dilemma for us is that although bird feeding is an immensely popular pastime practiced daily by millions of people all over the world, almost nothing is known about what all it’s doing to the birds. Because all of the food provided is entirely additional to their normal diet, this activity has been described as a ‘global supplementary feeding experiment’. It is an experiment in which the millions of participants are all focused on their own patch, thoroughly unaware of their potential influence on the wider landscape.
What we can say with some confidence, based on a large body of experiments on wild birds, is that even a little extra food leads to earlier breeding, more chicks, and a greater chance of surviving to the next year. In other words, feeding typically results in more birds.
That research, however, tells us rather little about the other concerns associated with bird feeding. What we can say is typically tentative. Sure, certain diseases can be spread as birds crowd at feeders, but given the colossal numbers involved, these outbreaks are very rare indeed. Certainly, some types of foods, like bread, are inadequate and potentially harmful. But for most birds, the proportion of their overall diet made up of human-provided food is so small that little harm is likely.
And is all that artificial food leading to a nation of, as has been put to me innumerable times, a bunch of bird bludgers? The genuinely good news is that there is no evidence of widespread reliance on the food we provide. Almost all species investigated still find and consume a diet dominated by natural foods, and only visit to our bird tables for snacks.
Whether you like it or not, millions of Australians feed birds. This is almost certainly changing the avian landscape, but they are not going to stop. The best we can hope for, at least until more explicit research is undertaken, is for feeders to follow some simple guidelines like keeping their feeding areas clean; avoiding bread and processed meats and not putting out too much. Consider this: the birds don’t need it as much as you do.
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