Should we feed the birds?

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Waking up in the morning to the chatter of Australian parrots, magpies and other birds in our gardens is one of the great joys of living in this country. There’s no denying that waking up to the talking birds outside is nicer than the shrill chirp of your alarm.

It’s amazing to think that these birds are at the centre of an almost uniquely Australian controversy: The feeding of wild birds. The question has been debated globally for years, but here at least, the public perception seems to be that it’s a bad idea to feed and water birds.

It’s a school of thought that Deakin University Research Fellow Dr Gráinne Cleary is exploring. Dr Cleary is the project leader of The Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study a Deakin University led citizen scientist initiative, that seeks to investigate the feeding and watering of birds by humans, and how these interactions affect both humans and birds alike.

The big questions

We’ve all heard the arguments against feeding wild birds. The most prominent of which is that it leads to the birds depending on humans as their source of food, and losing their independence to find food for themselves.

‘Do birds rely on the food, and if you withdraw it do they die? The answer to that is they don’t seem to. If you withdraw the food they will find other food elsewhere. Birds are very adaptable,’ Dr Cleary says. So, why is this school of thought so widely believed in Australia?

Dr Cleary believes that the issue lies within our unique wildlife. ‘I think here it’s because the birds are so different and people will say, oh plant native plants then that will feed native birds. Well, all you’re going to do is increase noisy miners and rainbow lorikeets, they are just going to bully out the other birds,’ Dr Cleary explains.

'If you withdraw the food they will find other food elsewhere. Birds are very adaptable'

Dr Gráinne Cleary,
Centre for Integrative Ecology, Deakin University

Disease

While Dr Cleary encourages the feeding and watering of birds in Australia, there is an element of danger to the bird population. ‘Disease risk is always a problem. There can be spread of disease, especially beak and feather disease,’ Dr Cleary said.

The issue of spreading disease is one of the key points behind the study. Despite the negative school of thought that overwhelmingly prevails in Australia, between 38 – 80% of the population participate in the feeding and watering of birds. This brings our bird feeding rates on par with the rest of the world. The issue is, we don’t have any guidelines on if what we’re doing is right for the birds themselves.

Around the world there are numerous guidelines on feeding birds the healthy way. Australia doesn’t have a set of rules in place, and this study aims to provide information to help this. ‘I really believe that if we got good guidelines, the people of Australia would look and say, okay, this is what I need to do to look after my birds better,’ Dr Cleary says.

The next steps

We need more information. Australians will continue to feed the birds that visit their backyards, so it’s vital that we provide better care. As Dr Cleary says, ‘The fact is we don’t know if we are having a negative impact and potentially a very serious one at that. Through this nationwide study we want to find out what’s happening – and we need the public to help us.’

‘Australians clearly love feeding their birds and we don’t want to stop this important human-wildlife interaction, but we do want to develop some sound guidelines that can help people ensure they are doing the right thing by the birds,’ Dr Cleary said.

If you’d like to learn more about Australian wildlife explore Deakin’s Bachelor of Environmental Science (Wildlife and Conservation Biology). Help impact the way we feed birds in Australia by signing up to the Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study.

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Dr Gráinne Cleary
Dr Gráinne Cleary

Research Fellow, School of Life and Environmental Sciences
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