Photographed barely two metres from the porch of my daughter and her husband’s house in Canberra, this kookaburra, along with his mate, is a regular visitor. As the photo shows, the house borders a large tract of native bushland that is ideal kookaburra territory.
Nevertheless, this fellow and his mate are happy to spend time (and possibly take up residence) quite close to the home of a pair of admiring humans.
This is by no means unusual as kookaburras are smart birds and quickly learn that where there are humans, there are often meaty tit-bits and other treats. They are even bold enough to pilfer sausages and the like from under the noses (sometimes quite literally) of picnickers and barbecue cooks.
I still have a very early childhood memory of the kookaburra that would snatch worms from under my father’s feet as he dug the garden. Knowing when he was on a good thing, the kookaburra appeared on the garden fence every morning, quickly managing to train my parents to feed him strips of meat for breakfast.
Feeding wild birds is a very common feature of human behaviour. It is a simple but compelling expression of biophilia, the deep-seated human desire to affiliate with other living things. 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. Figures from New Zealand are similar and Australian studies indicate that between 38 and 80 per cent of households spend hard earned cash attracting birds to their backyards.
The Australian figures are intriguing because in this country artificially feeding birds is a very controversial issue and is actively discouraged by many authorities. The main reasons given by opponents of the practice are:
- Diseases can be spread at feeding areas where large numbers of birds congregate
- Artificial feeding may not meet all nutritional requirements and cause malnutrition and digestive problems in adult birds and developmental deficiencies in their young
- Birds can become dependent on artificial food sources
- Artificial feeding favours the spread of more aggressive bird species to the detriment of other species, leading to imbalanced populations
But the scientific validation of these concerns is far from complete according to ornithologist, Professor Daryl Jones.
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.
Furthermore, Professor Jones says, there is no good evidence that backyard bird-feeding leads to dependency. “Almost all species investigated still find and consume a diet dominated by natural foods, and only visit to our bird tables for snacks”.
One thing numerous experiments have found, however, is that even a little extra food leads to earlier breeding, more chicks, and a greater chance of their surviving to the next year. In other words, feeding typically results in more birds.
The Australian reserve about the backyard feeding of birds is not shared by bird-lovers in the Northern Hemisphere. In the UK, for example, the British Trust for Ornithology and the Audubon Society 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!”. In the USA, 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.
Harsher winters and much less natural food and habitat, in the UK particularly, probably mean that birds in the Northern Hemisphere benefit more from human assistance than those in our neck of the woods.
But the motivation for attracting birds by feeding them is broader than safeguarding the welfare of the creatures. There are also practical, social and psychological reasons, including:
- Birds are attractive and interesting friends
- Watching and listening to them can reduce stress and provide pleasure
- They help with flower pollination and the control of plant pests
- Having birds around fosters environmental awareness and guardianship
A survey conducted by Daryl Jones and Peter Howard found, as well, that a powerful explanation offered by backyard bird feeders was what the researchers labelled “environmental atonement”. Humans had caused so much damage to the natural world, their respondents 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.
Where does all this leave Australians who could miss out on these benefits if they adhere to the recommendation not to feed wild birds?
Well, the choice may not be quite as black-and-white as it might appear. For one thing, many of us may be able to have bird-attracting gardens that have these basic features:
- A variety of pollen, seed, fruit and nectar-producing Australian native plants
- Plants of different textures and heights that provide shelter for a range of species sites
There may also be some place for bird feeding that is responsibly managed according to these guidelines:
- Feeding stations are placed out of the reach of cats and other predators
- Stations are cleaned daily and food removed after an hour
- The time of day when food is provided is varied
- Good quality food is used such as commercial nectar mixes or seed mixes (The cheaper supermarket seed does not contain sufficient nutrition for birds)
- Only sliced meat is fed to meat-eating birds and only after careful consideration has been given to the impact that these birds will have on smaller birds
- Feeding is ceased when more than 20 birds have gathered at the same station
- Pets are fed indoors or remaining food is removed so common Mynas and other birds can’t share it
- Providing food for the birds is made an occasional treat and not a daily event
I confess that I once tried unsuccessfully to set up feeding stations around my lawn to attract more regular visits from Rainbow Lorikeets but I am now content to let the flowering native trees and shrubs in my garden bring them.