Why the daily bread is not good for birds

Most of us love to feed the birds but giv­ing them bread may not be the best way to help our avian friends, writes Jo McCar­roll.

The Tribune (NZ) - - BACKYARD BANTER -

We are a na­tion of bird feed­ers. A study of six New Zealand cities a cou­ple of years ago found around half of us reg­u­larly feed our feath­ered friends.

The re­search, by sci­en­tists in New Zealand and Aus­tralia, sent a ques­tion­naire to 3000 house­holds across Whangarei, Auck­land, Welling­ton, Nel­son, Dunedin and In­ver­cargill.

The study found that 46.6 per cent of the house­holds sur­veyed reg­u­larly fed birds. The ma­jor­ity of those feed­ing birds were pro­vid­ing bread (88.1 per cent); while fewer people pro­vided fruit (40.8 per cent) or seed (39.4 per cent). De­spite many New Zealand birds being nec­tari­vores, or nat­u­rally nec­tar-eat­ing, only 17 per cent of the house­holds that fed birds put out sugar wa­ter.

‘‘Most of the people we ques­tioned en­joyed see­ing birds in their gar­den and in­ter­act­ing with them,’’ said ur­ban ecol­o­gist Josie Gal­braith, who was one of the au­thors of the study. ‘‘And most of them thought that pro­vid­ing birds with any kind of food was help­ing them, while not many of them iden­ti­fied any pos­si­ble dis­ad­van­tages of feed­ing birds.’’

But ef­fec­tively, Gal­braith says, feed­ing wild birds is a mas­sive sup­ple­men­tary feed­ing ex­per­i­ment. ‘‘We have so lit­tle in­for­ma­tion on what out­comes feed­ing has for birds, par­tic­u­larly in our ur­ban ar­eas where most of the feed­ing takes place.’’

To help de­ter­mine some of those out­comes, Gal­braith was part of a team which con­ducted a sec­ond study over 18 months at 23 res­i­den­tial prop­er­ties across Auck­land. Half of the house­holds fed the birds ev­ery day, put­ting out four or five slices of bread and one met­ric cup of bird­seed each morn­ing; the sec­ond half put out no sup­ple­men­tary food at all.

The house­holds that fed the birds re­ported a dra­matic in­crease in birds on their prop­erty within weeks of start­ing to put out food. Closer ob­ser­va­tion, how­ever, found the new­com­ers were more likely to be in­tro­duced birds rather than na­tives. Of the four na­tive birds com­monly seen in Auck­land gar­dens – tui, fan­tail, sil­vereyes and grey war­blers – the first three were ap­par­ent in sim­i­lar num­bers at feed­ing and non­feed­ing gar­dens. There was a con­sid­er­ably more dra­matic – and neg­a­tive – im­pact how­ever on the gray war­bler. ‘‘We saw the grey war­bler de­crease by more than 50 per cent once the feed­ing regime had started.’’

The bad news doesn’t end there. Of­fer­ing bread and seed in your gar­den not only neg­a­tively af­fects na­tive bio­di­ver­sity, a large num­ber of birds reg­u­larly crowded into one area in­creases the like­li­hood of avian dis­eases being trans­mit­ted be­tween them, says Gal­braith.

If you re­ally want to bring the birds into your gar­den, es­pe­cially if you want to sup­port na­tive species, the best thing you can do is plant with those birds in mind, Gal­braith says. Grow na­tive trees and shrubs that pro­vide nec­tar, seeds or berries, and choose plants with dif­fer­ent flow­er­ing and fruit­ing times so food is avail­able all year round.

Feed­ing does not help grey war­bler num­bers, the study has found.

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