Many people love feeding the native birds that gather in their backyard, especially the magpies and kookaburras that are always keen for a feed.
And it’s no surprise – in a short time, they learn to make very reliable companions for people who can’t otherwise keep a pet.
But it’s also s a well-known fact that we shouldn’t feed our native wildlife, no matter how much they may enjoy it, because feeding native birds and animals can cause a number of serious issues, including malnutrition, disease and an imbalance in the populations of certain species.
So the question is, how do we still attract birds to our garden and enjoy their company, without feeding them our leftover bread crusts or small pieces of mince?
One way to do so is by providing more natural food resources for native birds, which will keep them visiting, but won’t harm their health.
The most natural way you can attract birds to your garden is to plant trees and shrubs that they will enjoy collecting nectar or food from. Research shows that birds don’t starve when we stop feeding them, so they won’t be harmed if you withdraw artificial feeding methods.
Some particularly good plants for attracting Australian birds include acacias, casuarinas, eucalypts, banksias, bottlebrush, and grevilleas. Building up a ‘strata’, or varying sizes of ground covers, grasses, shrubs and trees, also makes birds feel more at home, while also providing them a good mix of nesting materials.
A birdbath will attract birds by providing them with a place to drink and bathe. It may take some cleaning every now and then, but your bird friends will surely appreciate it.
Sustainable Gardening Australia recommends putting your bath in a place where birds can bathe unworried about being targeted by a cat or another predator – next to a thick or prickly bush or hung from a tree are two good options. The bath should also be shallow enough for the bird to stand in them to clean their feather without going in under their heads.
Finally, regularly topping up the water is key, because birds remember where water sources are and will return to them if they know that the water is fresh year round.
A birdhouse or two, or a next box, is another great way to attract birds to your garden – you might even get to see some bird babies if one of the natives decides to set up a nest inside. Not only will you have the fun of watching the family grow, but you’ll be doing the birds a favour, because grazing, farming and development have removed many of the old, hollowed trees that many native birds favour for nesting.
Birdlife Australia advises that the best nest boxes are made from natural, hollowed branches or logs attached to a tree – ask your local council or tree-lopper if they have any, as removing them from the wild could deprive another bird or animal of their nesting place.
“Some species will readily use nest boxes made from PVC piping, but because of the smooth internal surface, it is essential to include some chicken wire or a piece of rough wood to enable the inhabitants to climb in and out,” Birdlife Australia says. “No matter which material you decide to use, make sure that all gaps are filled to exclude draughts.”
The organisation does warn that some birds, particularly mynas, can be aggressive around their nest-sites, though, so it’s wise to use an ‘anti-myna baffle’ to deter them if they’re common in your area. You can find more information here.
“If unwanted introduced birds start to use your nest box, the best thing to do is remove the nest material that they have added,” Birdlife Australia adds. “You must be persistent (removing it perhaps several times a day), as some species will keep trying to nest in the box for several days before eventually moving to another site.”
While natural options are a great way to attract birds to your garden, many want to hand feed birds by hand to build up a trusting connection.
But there are few tips for feeding that are important. Make sure you clean your feeding stations regularly and remove any food that has not been touched after an hour. This helps keep the birds eating area sanitiary and means your birds will be less likely to suffer from food poisoning.
Use good-quality, commercial nectar and seed mixes as cheaper blends often have very little nutritional value. If you are feeding meat-eating birds, it’s better to feed them sliced meat rather than heavily processed mince, but in general an insectivore mix would be a great substitute for meat altogether as it’s full of protein.
There are many species of bird that will happily try out your pet’s food, but this food can become contaminated by your pet’s saliva, which may transmit diseases or bacteria that can harm the bird, and can also spoil if left outside for too long. It is a good idea the keep pet food in a more enclosed area so birds can’t access it.
If more than 20 birds start flocking to feed, then you should stop feeding until the number drops. This excess of birds may mean there is an imbalance in population, so you need to let nature take its course and get back on track. Group feeding can also cause stress and fighting that may have been avoided if the birds were left foraging on their own.
In short, it’s best not to feed birds at all, but regularly replaced, high-quality bird seed is the best option for feeding the natives if you’re determined to do so. According to Wires Wildlife Rescue, birds are meant to eat a balanced diet consisting of 90 per cent nectar, insects, seeds, and fruit.
It’s important to not feed birds too often because this may change the balance of their diet. One food that’s bad for birds but is commonly fed to them is bread, which holds no nutritional value.
Raw meats such as mince easily spoil and can develop harmful bacteria so they should be avoided as well. Also, stay away from feeding birds milk and items high in salt because these can’t be processed by birds’ digestive systems.
Baked goods, potato chips and junk food is also off the menu for birds.