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Backyard bird feeding: a natural attraction?

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Professor Darryl Jones, urban ecologist from Griffith University, has written a book with the working title The Birds at My Table, a result of lots of research into the practice of backyard bird feeding. As an urban ecologist Professor Jones is interested in the relationships between animals and people (how they interact), especially in cities. 

His interest in bird feeding began 18 years ago when one of his students was studying magpies in the suburbs and noticed that every second magpie was being fed by someone.
This seemed unusual given that all Australian bird and conservation groups said backyard bird feeding should NOT be done.
Subsequent social surveys which included a question about feeding showed a participation rate of 35-50% in urban areas. 

Surprisingly, this is a similar rate to those in America and Europe (especially Great Britain) where this kind of bird feeding is actually promoted. Indeed the largest habitat for birds in Britain are people’s gardens and yards and there are lots of bird species like the song thrush that only live in those places where they are fed, their forest and woodland habitats having disappeared. In Europe other species like black caps and siskins have populations that are doing well and even growing in some urban areas so bird feeding has genuinely assisted those species. 

Above: Adult Magpie on grub patrol (Image from Darryl Jones)
Below: Rainbow lorikeet (image from Culum Brown)
The birds being fed in Australia are the magpies, the lorikeets and the like, none of which are under any threats. One of the motivations then for Australians in cities to feed these birds and to spend their own money to do so is a strong desire to connect with nature. The practice brings wild birds into domestic environments and while there is no control over the birds (which eventually fly away) the fact that they choose to visit is a really big deal for some people.
There are many reasons organisations give for not feeding birds. They argue it could make them dependent on humans, forgetting how to forage in the natural way. They also say the birds will become diseased because they are all congregating around feed trays and passing on diseases. 

They also argue it attracts the wrong kind of bird, the dominant predatory ones, like crows. There is generally little evidence for any of these reasons. Even getting diseases seems to be an extraordinarily rare occurrence although it is important for people to keep any bird feeding area absolutely hygienic. 

Group feeding
(image from Darryl Jones)

The book will be the first to look at bird feeding from a global perspective. It also takes an international view on the issues involved in feeding birds using the worldwide data that exists.
For the bird feeders themselves, their biggest concern worldwide is whether the birds are becoming dependent on their backyard food. 

In a magpie study, birds were banded, and two groups studied. Half of the birds were fed regularly by backyard feeders and the other half were not. Given that there could be at least one and up to six backyards feeding the same birds in an area it seemed likely that the backyard feeders would have a very different diet from the non feeder group of birds. However, the research proved otherwise. 

Despite all the food provided from the backyard feeding for magpies, 70% of the food consumed by the adults was natural, coming from worms and grubs dug out of the ground. For the food supplied to the chicks by the adults, over 90% of their food was natural, reflecting a magpie no junk food policy. Indeed it seems almost all birds feed naturally almost all of the time. So the birds are coming for a snack and it is all right for those backyard bird feeders to go on holidays without feeling guilty! 
It seems the birds and their backyard feeders have a natural attraction. 


Adult Magpie feeding fledgling (image from Darryl Jones)
Left: Brush Turkey (Image from Paul McQueen)

Professor Darryl Jones was interviewed by Ruby Vincent for A Question of Balance. 
Summary text by Victor Barry, March 2016.

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Feeding wildlife - more than just a national pastime Feeding wild birds: when did it start?

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