The Australian Bird Feeding & Watering Study

About our study

The Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study is a citizen science initiative being undertaken by researchers at Deakin University and Griffith University. While providing food and water to birds is a popular activity, little is known about which species are attracted and why people like to feed birds. We are conducting an online study that aims to examine the feeding and watering of garden bird throughout Australia. We aim to investigate which species use bird feeders and baths and how our behaviours and garden habits may impact or influence the birds that visit. We are also interested in the motivations, perceptions and actions of people who provide food and water for birds to help us understand more about this important human-wildlife connection.

Why this study is important?

Providing food for garden birds is an important activity for large numbers of people across Australia and is a significant connection to nature. In fact, attracting birds by the provision of food is probably the most widespread and popular form of human-wildlife interaction throughout the world. Here in Australia, however, remarkably little is known about this practice and this lack of reliable knowledge is becoming increasingly important. In the UK and Ireland, bird feeding is supported by most bird and conservation organisations who actively promote the practice as an important conservation activity. In contrast, in Australia concerns about the implication and effects of feeding has resulted in an unofficial opposition to the practice. This well-known stance is based on relatively little information and also tends to underestimate the considerable complexity of this multidimensional phenomenon.

How did feeding of wild birds start?

There is a long history and practice of feeding birds in the Northern Hemisphere and seems to be a humane response to the plight of hungry birds during winter. In particular, a series of severely cold weather during the early 20th century in the Northern Hemisphere resulted in thousands of birds freezing to death and the sight of their bodies littering the streets resulted in impetus to mass “outreach to the birds”. Today it is estimated that 34-75% of households in the USA and UK are engaged in garden bird feeding. Perhaps surprisingly, despite the opposition to the practice, around 38-57% of Australians provide food for birds.

Why is bird feeding in Australia controversial?

The general approval of the practice in the Northern Hemisphere has resulted in clear and practical advice for bird feeders. An abundance of sources provide detailed information on how and what to feed and guidelines on best practice. This activity is explicitly endorsed by organisations such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who actively promote feeding as a positive investment in the survival of our birds. Almost everything known about bird feeding in the Northern Hemisphere probably does not apply to the practice in Australia. Here people who feed birds have largely operated as free agents though many are aware of the apparent stigma of their hobby yet they remain passionately committed to their birds anyway.Understanding the effects of bird feeding and the desire and motivation of people engaged is an important component in attempts to understand the effect and implications of this important and intimate relationship. For example, bird feeding in Australia seem to attract relatively few small-bodied birds but larger and sometimes aggressive species such as Australian Magpies, Noisy Miners and Rainbow Lorikeets. However significant concerns remains because there is a lack of reliable empirical evidence on bird feeding.

Why is bird feeding such an important issue?

Food availability is one of the main factors limiting bird populations and supplementary feeding may reduce the risk of starvation and may enhance reproductive performance. Despite the impressive scale of bird feeding in Australia, understanding the ecological effects of bird feeding is very limited. While bird feeding may provide positive benefits such as increased over-winter survival and enhanced breeding success, there are also a number of potential negative impacts. For example, the provision of meat (mince, sausages and organs) results in large predatory birds such as Australian Magpies, butcherbirds and Pied Currawongs being among the most frequent visitors to feeding stations. This raises various issues including the loss of smaller birds, potential for bacterial spread owning to feeding raw meat and the potential nutritional effect of heavy use of fatty processed food.

Does feeding really change things for birds?

While feeding is likely to benefit the survival of individuals of certain species, it is also clear that the overwhelming majority of species fed in urban environments are already abundant and widespread. There are concerns that feeding may enhance populations of some introduced species, such as Common Starlings and House Sparrows as well as larger and more behaviourally dominant species (Noisy Miners, Pied Currawongs) at the expense of smaller native species. In the UK, feeding garden birds has been shown to greatly enhance the abundance of local species but did not influence species richness: more birds but not more species! We need to investigate if this pattern is also appearing in Australian gardens.

Where can I get more information about bird feeding?

The above information is taken from papers written by Darryl Jones and references within. You can view Darryls papers here