It’s been happening now; it’s been happening everywhere: more land clearings for more urban development.
I mean, I get so confused by this. I’ve seen malls and warehouses emptying out, housing development getting delayed or neglected because prices have dialed up to eleven. And yet, developers and companies keep doing it.
What’s regrettable from all that is environmental destruction for urban wildlife or wildlife in general.
Wild species have experienced a dramatic loss of habitat. This makes things harder for city dwellers to interact with wildlife.
One may think that such interaction may be beneficial for wildlife, but that’s usually the case for larger animals. Besides, studies show that a lack of connection to nature might lead to anxiety and depression for people in cities.
Forget about walking along deer or moose (if they even let us), birds are enough. These avian animals are among the most accessible and aesthetically attractive connection points.
Therefore, having more bird communities in cities can have a positive effect on people’s health and wellbeing.
Feeding the birds
In Aotearoa, feeding birds is popular. About half of New Zealand households feed birds in their gardens, usually with bread and seed.
It’s all well-meaning, of course—seeing wild birds can leave positive impacts for us, right?
Well, unfortunately, this mainly attracts species that are not native and grain-eating, like house sparrows, starlings, blackbirds and spotted doves.
These birds are likely to compete for space and habitat with native birds. Native birds don’t feed grains, but rather invertebrates, flower nectar, fruits or leaves.
So what do we do to get more native birds around?
Native, nectar-sipping birds in New Zealand like tūī, korimako/bellbirds and tauhou/silvereye can take sugar water as an alternative supplementary food.
Sugar water may benefit them over winter when nectar is scarce. And, it improves their chances of a successful breeding season come spring.
There are concerns that sugar feeding can lead to an accumulation of pathogens. Just like how too much sugar is bad for us, the same thing can be bad for birds. It can create health problems and make birds dependent on supplementary feeding.
It may also reduce pollination and seed dispersal by reducing bird visits to native plants. Additionally, the birds can be at greater risk of predation.
Researchers in New Zealand have examined sugar water and tried to find out how feeding it affects backyard bird communities.
The researchers explored which birds are visiting and how they interact with each other as well as their overall physical health.
Helping the birds feed (the right way)
The researchers analyzed 990 responses from an online New Zealand-wide survey to explore current sugar-water feeding practices.
They found that there was a large variety of feeding ways. However, the important part that affected which bird species visited backyards was the feeder type.
Feeders specifically designed for nectar-eating species were successful in attracting natives. At the same time, non-specific feeders like open dishes or simple containers also attracted non-native birds.
In feeders designed for nectar feeders, the bird must push aside the guard with its narrow bill and protrude its tongue under the feeder’s cover to drink the sugar water.
Of course, non-native birds that are not nectar-feeding don’t have the right-shaped tongues. They also don’t have the bills or behavior to feed the right way and are excluded from using these feeders.
Then, the researchers explored how seasons affected bird foraging behavior and aggressiveness.
In winter, birds visited feeders more often. They also spent a longer time foraging and were more aggressive to other birds while using the feeder.
This suggests winter feeding helps survival when natural foods are not widely available.
The researchers also observed Auckland tūī in winter in backyards. For an experiment, they added feeders with either low (half a cup of sugar per liter of water) or high (one cup/liter) sugar concentrations.
Tūī spent longer foraging at low-concentration feeders but were more aggressive at high-concentration ones. This suggests that to get energy, the bird must forage on low-calorie sugar water for longer. In contrast, high-calorie sugar water is a fiercely defended valuable source.
Nevertheless, the feeder presence did not change the overall number of backyard birds.
Is it okay to give sugar to birds’ bodies?
The researchers evaluated how the presence of sugar-water feeders, seasons and climate affected the birds’ body condition and disease prevalence.
Previous overseas studies suggest that individuals had better body conditions in non-feeding gardens than in those that provided a feeder.
However, in gardens with feeders, particularly in Auckland, the body condition of birds was better. This goes during summer and at high-sugar concentration feeders. It has to do with milder climate, warmer temperatures, and taking in more calories.
And as mentioned, sugar-water feeding was associated with a higher risk of coccidia infection. That can lead to loss of pigmentation, diarrhea and even kill birds in severe cases.
In the researchers’ case, their screening didn’t detect salmonella in any individuals or feeding stations. But in a similar study on backyard feeding in Auckland using bread and seeds, 7% of feeders tested positive for salmonella.
This suggests that non-native birds can negatively impact the native birds. Let’s take house sparrows as an example. They visit feeders with simple designs that can be accessed by most birds.
Judging from this recent research, they contribute to pathogen transmission risks for nectar-eating birds and, possibly, people.
What to do for my backyard?
Based on the researchers’ study, there are some recommendations to help native birds and native plants. These recommendations apply to Auckland as well as other areas which native birds feed on nectars.
- Refrain from feeding bread and seeds to birds, as this only encourages a lot more non-native species.
- Instead of using open dishes, choose commercially available sugar-water feeders designed for native birds. This way, it excludes non-native bird species.
- Only provide sugar water in winter. Stop feeding them during spring and summer to let birds use natural foods. This way, they can pollinate and spread native plants and we’ll minimize the risk of bacterial growth in hot weather
- In winter, in winter, use about one cup of sugar per liter of water. Researchers linked this concentration to better bird body condition than lower-sugar solutions.
- Thoroughly clean all structures for feeding at least two times a week and use hot water. This minimizes the risk of bird disease outbreaks.
- Attach the feeder to a tall post away from trees and fences to minimize chances of predation by cats.
Other than providing them with supplementary feeding, we can also give clean water baths during prolonged summer droughts.
If possible, control of possums, hedgehogs, and rodents can also help increase native bird numbers and diversity.
Interacting with wildlife and helping native birds
Giving native birds their supplementary food is an affordable and appealing way to interact with wildlife.
Although, it’s important to remember that supplemental feeding alone is not the solution for urban bird populations.
The researchers noted that the long-term answer is to transform backyards and urban parks into bird-friendly habitats. Nectar-feeding birds need protein from insects found on plants. At the same time, native vegetation provides essential food, shelter and nesting sites.
But if we can’t go big—turning backyards into havens for native birds—it’s fine to do a small part only. We help with what we have, and in turn, we can interact with them.
It’s gonna be a small win-win, but a win-win, nonetheless.