If you must feed wild birds, this is how to do it properly

A baby magpie and two galahs on a bird feeder

People have always fed wild birds. And no matter how many times we’re told not to, some Australians will continue to do it. For those who can’t resist the urge to share a snack with our feathered friends, it’s crucial to understand that there is a responsible way to do it.

Griffith University’s professor of ecology, Darryl Jones, has spent hours researching the subject of bird feeding in Australia. He says that our de facto official stance is “all wildlife feeding is bad”. All sources of information on bird feeding in Australia, including guidance from environmental departments, wildlife rescue organisations and local councils, strongly discourage the practice.

And yet, millions of us are doing it. Prof. Jones estimates a staggering 30 to 50 per cent of households are feeding birds.

Prof. Jones’s work involves researching the relationship between urban populations and wildlife. Surprisingly, he has become an advocate for educating people about bird feeding, a shift from his earlier stance of being firmly against the practice. 

His change of heart came about because of the significant number of people who are feeding birds without access to reliable information or advice. He recalls that a decade ago, inquiries about feeding birds, such as what to safely offer visiting magpies, would typically be met with a steadfast “you shouldn’t feed the birds at all”. If people are feeding wild birds even when told not to, there needs to be information available about how to do it properly.

Now, Prof. Jones himself feeds wild birds. In his view, feeding wild birds offers a unique blend of tranquillity and exhilaration. It’s a form of solace that can be “healing, connecting, and illuminating”. When birds grace us with their presence, it provides us with precious, priceless moments of interaction with truly untamed creatures. It’s a rare chance to forge a deep connection with the natural world. 

In his second book on feeding, Feeding the Birds at Your Table: A Guide for Australia, Prof. Jones says that most people don’t know if they’re feeding properly or not and information is lacking because of the taboo. “They’re feeding terrible things and causing all sorts of problems but they don’t realise that,” he told The Guardian. 

The issues with feeding wild birds

The main things we do wrong when it comes to feeding wild birds is that we give too much food, we give it too often and on implements that are not clean. And for magpies, in particular, we give the wrong foods.

Birds benefit most from sporadic feeding to prevent them from becoming overly reliant on human handouts, and it’s essential to provide them with the right kind of food. When it comes to magpies, this means fortified dry dog food, crickets or mealworms. And absolutely no mince.

Mince is often a go-to when it comes to wild bird feeding, but it can have serious complications. “It’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s accessible, it’s convenient and the birds love it. The trouble is, it doesn’t have enough calcium,” Prof. Jones says.

In the wild, magpies primarily feed on a diet of insects, worms, beetles, frogs and lizards. These whole prey items provide them with essential calcium, vitamins and minerals that support various metabolic functions. Mince doesn’t have much calcium, and when magpies lack this vital nutrient, they start to deplete their own bone reserves. This calcium deficiency can result in fragile bones that are more susceptible to fractures and the softening of their beaks.

Over time, a calcium deficiency can lead to metabolic bone disease that can cause symptoms such as tremors, lethargy, leg deformities and malformed beaks. Interestingly, even young birds are at risk of developing this condition if they are fed inappropriate food by their parents. In some documented cases, fledgling magpies have taken their initial flights from the nest only to suffer leg fractures upon landing due to calcium deficiencies.

How to feed wild birds responsibly 

  1. Choose the right food: opt for bird-friendly options such as seeds, grains and fruits, instead of processed human foods. Bread, in particular, is not a suitable choice, as it offers little nutritional value.
  2. Use bird feeders: invest in bird feeders designed to provide a controlled amount of food. These reduce waste, discourage aggression and help maintain birds’ natural foraging skills.
  3. Appropriate timing: feed birds in the morning or early afternoon when they are most active. Avoid feeding at dusk or in the evening, as this can disrupt their natural roosting and sleeping patterns.
  4. Keep it clean: ensure your feeding area and bird feeders are clean to prevent the spread of diseases among birds. Regularly clean and disinfect feeders and feeding areas.
  5. Limit quantity: don’t overfeed the birds. Offer a small, appropriate portion of food to prevent them from becoming dependent on handouts.
  6. Be discreet: don’t encourage birds to approach closely or to be hand fed. Maintain a safe distance to observe their natural behaviour.
  7. Water matters: alongside food, provide a source of clean, fresh water, which is vital for their wellbeing, especially during hot and dry seasons.

Do you feed birds in your garden? What do you feed them? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: How to keep Indian mynas out of your garden

Written by Ellie Baxter

Writer and editor with interests in travel, health, wellbeing and food. Has knowledge of marketing psychology, social media management and is a keen observer and commentator on issues facing older Australians.

5 Comments

Leave a Reply
  1. Earlier this year I started to feed Rainbow Lorikeets after I found the gardener had cut off all the red bottlebrush flowers on the beautiful tree they were accustomed to feeding on.

    I fed them apples, plums and grapes and Lorikeet nectar mix and of course fresh water daily. That was fine. Then when the tree flowered again I cut back on feeding them and they were happy to return to their natural food. That was fine for a couple of months. Then honey bees made a big hive of honey and the owners of the buillding I live in sent someone to kill the bees because people walking under the tree were afraid of them. So I’ve started to again to feed the Lorries.

    The poison they used to kill the bees also killed the red bottlebrush flowers. So now I am back to feeding them until the tree gets more flowers on them.

    • To put it politely, the owners of your building are idiots. To think that killing the bees was a preferred action makes little sense. There are apiarists who will capture wild hives and relocate them. Instead of fearing the bees, they should’ve been celebrating their presence.
      Hopefully the bottle brush wasn’t the only mass flowering plant in the immediate area and bees will return to work their essential tasks in the flowering plant world.

  2. I have a plum tree which the rainbow lorrikeets and bower birds feed off. I have a loquat tree which the king parrots help themselves too. I have 2 macadamia nut trees that the sulfur crested cockatoos share with us. U dont have to FEED birds. Plant a tree. U get the food. They get the food. And it helps with keeping the climate cool. Air quality improves. Shade to sit under.

  3. Somewhere nearby where I live, there is someone who prides themself on feeding the birds actively in their back garden. Plus puts out blue bits for the bower birds that live in my yard.
    However, this feeding includes full slices of white bread. The local crow family bring those slices to the bird bath in my back yard. If I don’t flush that almost daily, it becomes putrid.
    Fortunately I have more than one effective birdbaths in this yard. More than one full depth and it is preferred for a full immersion bath by several birds.

Leave a Reply

Jamie Lee Curtis

Why can’t we look away when celebrities post on global news events?

Apple and Cranberry Stuffing for chicken or turkey