Why it's OK to feed wild birds
Updated: May 4
Millions of Australians are already actively feeding wild birds in their gardens. While many know intuitively it’s the right thing to do, officially Australia remains one of the few places in the world where feeding wild birds is frowned upon.
From an Aboriginal perspective, people and birds have interacted in Australia since the Dream Time. Many First Australians have birds as our Dreamings. Mine is the Lyrebird. I named my daughter after a bird. I talk to the birds. I know all the birds that visit my garden. Many of them know me. I feed them. I provide them with water, habitat and nesting materials. I protect them from roaming cats.
Looking after and relating to birds is in my DNA. As an Aboriginal person caring for birds is part of my ‘connection to country’ and ‘caring for country’. One of my favourite daily activities is feeding a pair of wild king parrots which call out to me when I make the coffee and school lunches each morning. The mother sits on my hand. Our resident magpie family also visit each day. If I leave the door open, they even come inside.
But caring for country isn’t just a responsibility for First Australians. It belongs to us all. Feeding birds in gardens the right-way - to ensure nutrition, disease and other risks are managed - is caring for them and helps us connect with them.
The idea that we shouldn’t feed native birds because they need to survive in their own natural habitat is an oxymoron. Especially in urban and regional settings, our birds have been forced to adapt to radically degraded landscapes. Take, for example, habitat in the Canberra region where I live. Only five percent of high-quality yellow-box grassy woodland remains. More than two-thirds has been destroyed and most of the rest is over-run with weeds and feral animals. Endangered gang-gang cockatoos, like those that visit to feed in my garden from time to time, can no longer rely on it. They have to adapt. We can help.
Across Australia’s southeast our native birds have lost almost half of their original habitat. Our gardens are thus more important than ever. This is acknowledged through official encouragements to grow bird-attracting native plants and install bird baths. But food sources are also important habitat. In urban and other deforested parts of Australia, supplementary feeding can contribute to habitat for wildlife.
Finally, Australia’s birds are smart. They think. They have agency. Birds choose to integrate particular human families and gardens in their lives or not. Feeding birds in our gardens isn’t a one-way relationship. It nurtures mutually beneficial relations.
Arguments against feeding wild birds usually focus on risks associated with dependency, disease, poor nutrition, or attraction of dominant and feral species. Some of these risks are real. Others are marginal. Most importantly, all can be managed. Evidence on dependency, shows wild birds are smart enough not to rely on a sole feeding sources. They get their food from multiple locations. Disease transmission risks can be managed by thorough cleaning of feeders. Nutrition is important. But just like for humans and our pets, can be addressed through awareness raising and education. I never give our magpies mince or bread. Only dog food or a very occasional piece of cheese. Our parrots get wild bird mix with some sunflowers as a treat. But not too many.
Dominant and feral species risks are real but should be managed regardless of whether we feed wild birds or not. Indeed, along with habitat protection, feral and dominant species management are critical for conservation as a whole. Noisy miners, for example, already dominate urban areas and are officially listed as a threatening process due to their impacts.
Just like ‘right-way’ cultural burning which is now making a long overdue comeback as a land management tool in south-eastern Australia, it’s time to hit reset on feeding wild birds. Australian is no longer utopian wilderness. Climate change is inducing even more disequilibrium. Right-way feeding of Australian birds is part of our responsibility to protect and care for them and country. And it can help Australians to reconnect with the natural environment on which we depend.