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Animal rights groups search Gloucestershire for wounded badgers as second phase of pilot badger cull begins
ANIMAL rights groups have started their search for wounded badgers across Gloucestershire as the second round of the pilot cull has begun.
The next phase of culling started last night in a bid to eradicate bovine TB in cattle by shooting 615 animals, Defra has announced.
Opponents say a vaccination programme would be more effective in tackling the disease.
Scott Passmore, from A Wildlife with Animals which is based in the Forest of Dean, said: “We started at Newent and at one point we were near Deerhurst and I have mammal handling equipment in the car and many badger setts can be seen from the roadside.
“We did not find any wounded badgers last night. But my view is this is totally wrong and if anything this is going to make TB worse.
“They should be addressing the real problem, which is cattle movement and bio-security on farms.
“We have been finding lamb carcasses left in fields, deer heads hanging on trees and we have been finding all sorts of undesirable things left in fields but unfortunately the wildlife is being used as a scapegoat.”
Activists operating for the Gloucestershire Badger Office patrolled most of the zone which lies between the M5, M50 and A40 to guard badger setts from cull marksmen.
Anti-cull campaigner Drew Pratten, from the Forest of Dean, said: “We had a phenomenal amount of support last night including people from Manchester and Derbyshire saying ‘we are here for one night, what can we do’?
“There are people actually guarding setts, people on lookout points and at crossroads where we can see what’s happening.”
NFU president Meurig Raymond said in the South West, where bovine TB is endemic and where herds are being reinfected despite farmers’ best efforts to protect the, controlling the disease in badgers has to be an essential part of any strategy to wipe the disease out.
He said: “Nobody would choose to kill badgers if there was an effective alternative in areas where TB is rife. But if we’re ever going to get on top of TB in areas where the disease is endemic there is no other choice.
“The chief vet has said culling over a four-year period in both pilot areas will have an impact on disease control. I am confident that these pilot culls will help deliver a reduction in bTB in cattle and it is vital that they are allowed to be successfully completed so they can deliver the maximum benefits.
Environmental secretary Elizabeth Truss said the Government is pursuing a comprehensive strategy supported by leading vets which includes cattle movement controls, vaccinating badgers in edge areas and culling badgers where the disease is rife. She said: “This is vital for the future of our beef and dairy industries, and our nation’s food security.
“At present we have the highest rates of bovine TB in Europe. Doing nothing is not an option which is why we are taking a responsible approach to dealing with bovine TB.”
The pilot cull will run for the next six weeks.
By Bridie Smith, Science Editor, The Age
The noise is piercing and poignant. It starts as a determined drill reminiscent of the “tut-tut” of Skippy – but delivered with a bit more chirrup – then accelerates to a pitch and pace rivalling that of a lorikeet. Then it goes quiet. That’s it. The last call, made by the last Christmas Island pipistrelle bat. It lasts barely 40 seconds.
Before the Christmas Island pipistrelle left the world for good, he was recorded over three nights as he moved through the rainforest. Using ultrasonic pulses of sound to forage for food, this bat was feasting on the fly: expertly catching and consuming insects mid-air. If he was aware scientists were tracking him, he wasn’t obliging them. More than 250 kilograms of equipment had been lugged to the tiny island outpost in the Indian Ocean, 1500 kilometres north-west of the Australian mainland, as part of a desperate attempt to rescue his species.
But he was having none of it. He gave the harp nets and mist nets the slip, zipping over the top, night after night. And he ignored a purpose-built 15-metre-long tunnel trap, despite it being set up in one of his favourite foraging spots, a corridor lined with thick rainforest vegetation. His calls, picked up by detectors, indicated he was active. He flitted between feeding sites and reassured researchers with frequent banter. But on the fourth night, the synchronised detectors planted on his island home met silence. Without intending to, scientists had captured the last call of a species, made on its last night in existence: August 26, 2009.
For scientists, the experience was shattering. Years on, many who made the long trek to the island are still mourning the loss of the tiny 3.5-gram creature. Rupert Baker, life science general manager at Healesville Sanctuary – a Victorian zoo specialising in native Australian animals – was on the expedition and remembers returning to camp burdened with the knowledge that a species had vanished for good. ”Everything on Earth is part of one big complex carpet … and each strand that you take away makes us a little bit more impoverished,” he says.
But for others, the pipistrelle’s plight prompted an uncomfortable question: should the rescue mission have taken place at all? And now, given the limited dollars available for conservation, some respected scientists are calling for a tough new way to preserve the nation’s threatened species: triage.
The concept, first applied during the Napoleonic Wars, is a way of prioritising the treatment of patients. Generally speaking, patients fall into one of three categories: those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive; those who are likely to die, regardless of what care they receive; and those for whom immediate care might mean the difference between life and death.
It is a process familiar to viewers of the film and later TV series M*A*S*H, set in the chaos of a mobile military hospital during the Korean War, and that to a lesser degree plays out daily in hospital emergency rooms. In times of disaster and war, it amounts to a pragmatic hierarchy of care based on a patient’s chances of survival given the severity of their condition and the resources available to treat them. Applied to Australia’s native animals, it is a controversial plan that hangs on a reluctant recognition that not all creatures can be saved. Proponents argue that cash should be concentrated on the threatened species with the greatest chance of survival. This means someone is going to have to decide which species get on board the ark, which get left behind, and what criteria should separate the two.
The undulating hills around Healesville, north-east of Melbourne, are neatly stitched with vineyards and fields of dairy cattle. Signs along the road leading to the zoo’s bush sanctuary display phone numbers for motorists who find themselves helping injured wildlife; creatures caught in the path of urbanisation and industry.
Jenny Gray, CEO of Zoos Victoria, is standing in an outdoor enclosure with keeper Monika Zabinskas. The pen, carpeted with leaf litter, houses a one-year-old Tasmanian devil. The animal was born here and, as a result, lives free of the devastating facial-tumour disease that has destroyed 50 per cent of her species across two-thirds of Tasmania. The devil, effectively a teenager, is showing a particularly independent streak. She squirms and grunts as Zabinskas tries to secure her in a handling pouch. Gray looks on, amused. The creature’s snout and whiskers twitch as she arches her neck towards Gray.
This year, Healesville Sanctuary will spend $3.5 million caring for the most critically endangered species under its wing and managing captive-breeding programs. It is not nearly enough for what is needed, so Gray has had to make tough decisions. The first was to exclude Australia’s threatened native fish and native insect species from the program. ”We’re not guaranteeing we can save every fish and every insect,” she says matter-of-factly. ”The fish are not our expertise. And the insects; we just don’t know enough to know how dire the situation is.”
Instead, the zoo has promised that no Victorian land-based vertebrate species will go extinct on its watch. Within these parameters, the organisation will focus its conservation efforts on 20 species, each listed as threatened, each found only in Australia’s south-eastern states. It is a limited form of triage. ”Our promise is that no species will go extinct, so where do we work?” says Gray. “We work right at that tipping point. We work with the animals on the brink of extinction.”
But is it enough? Australia’s animal extinction rate is among the worst in the world; we are now losing one mammal every 20 to 30 years and one bird a decade. More than 1800 species and ecological communities are listed as threatened nationally. Against this decline is a patchwork of funding: some state, some federal, some from the private sector. None of it adds up to the estimated $100 million a year required to stop threatened Australian plants and animals from vanishing. Yet it has been estimated that up to three times as many threatened species could be preserved if funding was allocated using what some argue is a more rational approach.
Hugh Possingham remembers when the penny dropped for him. Then an academic with the University of Adelaide, he was in Canberra in 1999 in a meeting with the federal government’s threatened species unit when it dawned on him that funds were being allocated to species with no real hope of rehabilitation.
Possingham, now with the University of Queensland and a director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, wondered if there was a better way. So he asked. ”People were very hostile,” he recalls. The main concern was that it meant conceding defeat – admitting that some species were beyond saving. “I said, ‘Well, you are giving up on species that are not threatened.’ It’s an argument that has gone back and forward ever since.”
A birdwatcher since the age of 12, he is a vocal advocate of species triage as a means of keeping Australia’s ecosystems diverse and robust. But he argues that tackling a list of already marginal species from the top down is futile. “We should pick winners rather than struggling away with the ones on their last legs,” he says. Rather than concentrating conservation efforts at the “tipping point”, Possingham advocates focusing on ensuring creatures don’t make the threatened list.
Possingham is one of many who believe the Christmas Island pipistrelle’s rescue mission arrived too late to have any realistic chance of success. Widespread when it was first described in 1900, the bats first showed signs of decline in 1994, thanks to a combination of disease and introduced species including the yellow crazy ant, common wolf snake and black rat. The yellow crazy ant invaded the roosting spots of the bats which, being creatures of habit, do not relocate; returning microbats were sprayed with formic acid by the ants and eaten alive. The snake and rat, meanwhile, preyed on the bat, which had evolved free of tree-climbing predators.
Scientists were on the case but powerless to act without the authority of government. The pipistrelle, one of Australia’s smallest bats and the only microbat on Christmas Island, was listed as endangered in 2001, then critically endangered in 2006. By the following year, the bat was effectively on life support. But a rescue mission was only given the nod in July 2009 – by which stage there were as few as 20 bats left. For many, the pipistrelle was already a lost cause.
One of the most haunting exhibits at Healesville Sanctuary is an empty enclosure – or it might as well be. Among the native vegetation is a rust-coloured silhouette of a thylacine. Standing sideways, with its trademark stripes fanning out from the shoulder blades to the base of the tail, the metal sculpture is a silent reminder of what has been lost. Hunted almost to extinction, the last thylacine died at Hobart Zoo on September 7, 1936.
In the quiet hours before dawn, Gray sometimes lies awake and thinks about the thylacine, and about its closest living relative, the Tasmanian devil. ”I worry that one day I’ll be holding a Tasmanian devil in my hands,” she confided during a 2012 Melbourne TED Talk. ”He’ll be old. His fur will be grey. Patches might be missing. His nose will be dull and cracked.” And he will not be just any devil. “He just might be the last Tasmanian devil on the planet,” she says to the now silent audience. “And after I have taken that decision [to euthanase], they won’t exist any more.”
That said, the devil has one big asset in its battle for life: people like devils. It is easier for people to relate to a fellow mammal than to an insect. When the sanctuary’s teenage devil lets out her revving growls and blood-curdling screeches, it’s near impossible not to attach a personality to her behaviour. Her name, Mulana, is a Wurundjeri word meaning spirit.
Research shows that so-called flagship species – namely large mammals with forward-looking eyes – have the greatest marketing appeal and are most commonly used by non-government organisations to raise money for conservation; think the World Wildlife Fund panda. In human triage it would be morally abhorrent to administer care on the basis of affection or appearance, but in animal triage, looks, or at least charm, count.
Consider the critically endangered Baw Baw frog. For unknown reasons, the drab-looking amphibian with mottled brown-black skin suffered a population decline of 98 per cent between 1993 and 2008 in its southern Victorian habitat. Their numbers have slid even further in the past two years, with fewer than 2500 individuals left in the wild. In 2012, the Victorian government pulled up to $20,000 in funding for wild population surveys. Zoos Victoria has stepped in to allow the annual surveys to continue. But it does nothing to arrest the decline.
Compare the Baw Baw’s plight with that of another amphibian, the striking southern corroboree frog. With its butter-yellow and raven-black markings, it often gets described as charismatic. Its appeal is only enhanced by the fact it doesn’t hop (frog-like) but clambers around its mossy habitat in NSW’s Snowy Mountains. Like the Tasmanian devil, it has a fatal disease to contend with: a highly infectious fungal condition called chytridiomycosis that, like the devil’s tumour, has baffled scientists. Listed as critically endangered, there are fewer than 100 remaining in the wild and its alpine home is shrinking as the planet warms. Despite the obstacles, the black and buttercup beauty receives a combined $350,000 a year in conservation funding from five groups, including the NSW government.
But should a frog (albeit a pretty one) with a vanishing alpine home and a tenuous grip on survival have such a slice of the limited cash allocated to saving threatened species? Should a Tasmanian devil with a population decimated by a so-far incurable cancer be allowed to suck up so much of the conservation dollar, beautiful eyes or not?
The devil, however, has another advantage: its contribution to its society. When you consider the role played by any given species in the broader ecosystem, some creatures really are more equal than others. For the devil, Australia’s largest carnivorous marsupial, its position as a top-order predator makes it a keystone in the finely tuned ecosystem. Sitting at the top of the food chain, such species keep every other one in check, stifling the impact of introduced species such as foxes and preventing herbivores such as wombats and wallabies from eating out the habitat faster than it can regenerate.
On this basis alone – its unique role in its environment – the pipistrelle might have had trouble getting aboard the ark. Bats have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, at least 65 million years. Australia has about 75 types of native bat and microbat. Losing the Christmas Island pipistrelle was not going to cripple the local ecosystem.
Not so the endangered southern cassowary. Despite bad press about its antisocial behaviour (the imposing flightless bird has been known to attack and, on at least one occasion, kill humans), it is a vital seed distributor for 238 plants and trees in its north Queensland rainforest home. It is also the only representative of its subspecies on the continent. While habitat loss, cyclones, cars and dogs have reduced its numbers to less than 1000 in the wild – largely concentrated around Mission Beach, Cooktown and on Cape York – a medley of local, state and national governments are working with community and indigenous groups to turn things around for the giant bird.
That said, the greatest contributors to the health of an ecosystem still frequently miss out on conservation attention. A federal government committee told a senate inquiry last year that mammals, birds and flowering plants were represented in greater numbers in conservation efforts than animals that literally have never grown a backbone. Non-flowering plants, which play a vital role in ecosystems and biodiversity, are simply overlooked.
The prehistoric-looking Lord Howe Island stick insect is an unusual invertebrate, in that it is listed nationally and internationally as critically endangered. It also has a dedicated captive breeding program. Not all threatened insects are so lucky. ”Invertebrate animals are 95 per cent of all animal biodiversity but very few invertebrate are listed as threatened species, even though it is likely that many species would qualify for listing if nominated,” the threatened-species committee told the inquiry.
Hugh Possingham believes that rather than assessing bats, frogs and Tasmanian devils according to the odds of them vanishing from the planet, governments should manage biodiversity by weighing up the cost and chances of success against the unique nature, or taxonomic distinctiveness, of the animal. Echidnas and platypus score highly on this taxonomic scale, while a medium-sized wallaby would get a low score given the variety of members in its family tree.
It sounds drastic. But for Possingham, this is how M*A*S*H medics make their life-and-death decisions. ”Biodiversity is being lost at roughly a hundred to a thousand times the natural rate,” he says, almost in exasperation. ”If we are losing species at up to a thousand times the natural extinction rate, then we are effectively in a war zone.”
Opponents say it is not that simple, and that triage amounts to assisted, unnatural selection. The Austral-asian Bat Society argues that no one has the right to play God. The independent, non-profit Australian Wildlife Conservancy maintains that if funds are invested correctly, we should be able to save everything. Threatened-species scientists Deborah Ashworth and Todd Soderquist argue that applying triage to animals and even plants risks placing the most feasible and affordable projects at the top of the list, while letting the more complicated, long-term or expensive slide to the bottom. ”The simplicity of this approach is very seductive,” they warned in their senate submission.
But governments are coming around to Possingham’s way of thinking. In 2005, Queensland was the first state to introduce a triage test, called Back on Track. The logic underpinning the plan was to recover the greatest number of threatened species. Similarly, Tasmania has focused on 171 threatened species it says can be saved over 50 years at a cost of $155 million. And across the Tasman, New Zealand has identified 700 species in decline and prioritised 300 of those most likely to benefit from intervention.
The Australian Fisheries Management Authority has made its own list; starting with 2000 species, its focus over the past five years has narrowed to less than 70. And in NSW, where almost a third of native mammals, 28 per cent of birds, 18 per cent of reptiles and 13 per cent of plants are threatened, the state government has signed up to prioritise 967 threatened species.
Australia’s first threatened-species commissioner, Gregory Andrews, took up his post in July. Among his tasks is to draw up a list of threatened species most likely to benefit from intervention. “I trained as an economist, so I think of the opportunity cost of everything,” he says. “And there are some species that we are spending a lot more on.”
What, then, to make of the Tasmanian devil? An army of scientists is dedicated to saving the species. Captive breeding programs are well established on the mainland, and small islands off Tasmania have been quarantined for healthy devils. But will science deliver a cure in time? Or, more to the point, should we keep investing in the hope that it might? Granted, the devil’s public appeal will keep the dollars dribbling in, even as its population dwindles. But are we taking finite
finances away from another animal that is will score higher on the triage test? Has the devil earned its place on the ark? For Jenny Gray, the answer is clear. ”We won’t walk away,” she says. “It may be a hopeless cause, but it’s our hopeless cause.”
At the sanctuary, I bring the young devil’s swaddled body closer to mine. I open my forearms a little and spread my fingers wide to support the folds of blanket so she can prop her chin on the edge and watch as keepers prepare her bottle. Her weight is satisfying. Not heavy enough to create strain, but not so light as to seem less than substantial. I know she is there. I can feel her move. Her head bobs like one of those toys on a car dashboard as she sniffs the air with the matt-brown nose at the end of her whiskered snout.
So what say we? Does she get a berth?
I read a recent blog post highlighting the feral cat problem in Hawaii (http://rumpydog.com/2014/08/14/so-hawaii-wants-to-kill-cats/). The post mentioned a paper published in Conservation Biology which indicated that Hawaiian residents preferred euthanasia over trap-neuter-release (TNR) programs when it came to feral cat management (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cobi.12201/abstract;jsessionid=FB4AAB1970A118DB0073E69D40924627.f01t04?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false). This study was criticised as being flawed and its findings erroneous by Vox Felina, a group that supports TNR (http://www.voxfelina.com/2014/08/a-response-to-lohr-and-lepczyk/).
Whether or not the Conservation Biology study is flawed is irrelevant. What the residents of Hawaii prefer in this regard is also irrelevant. The fact remains, feral cats should not be present on Hawaii. They were introduced in the 1800s and have caused untold destruction to the native bird life since then. These species, like the birds of New Zealand, evolved without the presence of predators and are ill equipped to deal with them. Neutered cats kill just as many birds as cats that have not been neutered.
The debate over TNR and euthanasia only occurs because we have an emotional attachment to cats that has evolved over many hundreds of years. No one appears to be advocating TNR programs for the possums of New Zealand, the rabbits of Australia or the brown tree snakes running rampant on Guam. Why the inconsistency? All four groups of animals are feral and cause untold damage to their new environments, environments which will only recover properly if these animals are completely removed. The only way the New Zealanders were able to successfully reintroduce any of their endangered birds to their offshore islands was to remove every last cat.
As well as the predation issue cats also carry toxoplasmosis. This disease is caused by a small parasite that needs cats to complete its life cycle. It causes no disease in cats but has killed alala (Corvus hawaiiensis), nene (Hawaiian goose; Branta sandvicensis), red-footed boobies (Sula sula) and even the endangered Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi). Toxoplasmosis is also a zoonosis, posing health risks for pregnant women and immunocompromised people (http://www.usgs.gov/ecosystems/pierc/files/factsheets/cats.pdf).
Unfortunately as long as there are feral cats running around the Hawaiian Islands, its bird species will be at risk of extinction. No TNR programs will remedy that. The only remedy is to remove the cats from the environment. Anything else is nonsensical.
Dr. F. Bunny
Considering all the data I have read appears to indicate that badger culling to control tuberculosis not only does not work but actually makes it worse as it encourages badgers to move around more, I find it very disappointing that the BVA would support such a dubious activity.
Dr. F. Bunny
The following article appears at: http://www.farminguk.com/news/Veterinary-association-to-support-second-year-of-badger-culls_30544.html.
The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has said it will support the second year of the pilot culls in England. This follows Defra’s response to BVA’s call for improvements to humaneness and effectiveness in light of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) report on the first year.
The IEP report, published in April, found that the first year of culling failed to meet criteria for effectiveness (in terms of the number of badgers removed) and that the method of controlled shooting had failed to meet the criteria for humaneness. BVA welcomed the report and called on Defra to implement all of the IEP’s recommendations fully.
BVA has remained in constant dialogue with Defra and met with the then Secretary of State Owen Paterson, the Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens, and other Defra officials to seek clarification on Defra’s proposals, as well as calling for robust monitoring and collation of results and independent analysis and audit by a non-governmental body.
Defra has moved considerably, confirming a number of changes to its plans. In particular, Defra has confirmed that:
– shotguns would not be used for controlled shooting
– contractor selection, training and assessment would be enhanced
– the number of field observations of shooting and number of post mortem examinations of badgers would be in line with that carried out in year one
– real-time information would ensure a better distribution of effort and that poor performing marksmen would be removed from the field
In addition, and in response to BVA, Defra has committed to an independent audit of the way the protocols are carried out during the cull. BVA is satisfied that the appointment of such an auditor addresses many of our original concerns. However, BVA will continue to call upon the new Secretary of State to put in place independent analysis in order to give confidence to the wider public.
BVA’s position on any further rollout of controlled shooting as a method to cull badgers (and its continued use in the pilots) will be decided once we have assessed the outcomes of the second year.
Commenting, BVA President Robin Hargreaves said: “BVA has always maintained that we could only support the use of controlled shooting as a method to cull badgers if it was found to be humane, effective and safe. We supported the findings of the Independent Expert Panel and called on Defra to implement the recommendations fully.
“We therefore welcome Defra’s proposals to improve humaneness and effectiveness in light of the IEP report, and we have been pleased how far Defra has moved towards BVA’s position, in particular by ensuring a robust and independent audit is in place.
“It is essential that Defra gets this right to allow the veterinary profession to have confidence that controlled shooting can be carried out humanely and effectively. We continue to call upon the Secretary of State to put in place independent analysis of the second year of culling to give confidence to the wider public.
“Badger culling is a necessary part of a comprehensive bovine TB eradication strategy that also includes strict cattle measures and vaccination. Culling remains a hugely emotive issue but we must tackle the disease in both cattle and wildlife. Scientific evidence supports the use of targeted, humane badger culling to achieve a reduction in the disease in cattle.
“I’m proud that the veterinary profession has had such a significant influence on Defra’s position and we will continue to engage with the government to ensure the pilot culls are humane and effective.”
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.
Ockham’s Razor is a soap box for all things scientific, with short talks about research, industry and policy from people with something thoughtful to say about science.