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To feed or not to feed: Bringing birds to your backyard
ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary
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To feed or not to feed: Bringing birds to your backyard

Bird visitors to your garden bring a lot of joy, watching them look for nesting material, a place to sit and sing or some tasty kai/food. With the urban location of Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne, we’re lucky to see birds of all shapes and sizes visiting backyards around Wellington.

From the loud kākā, the iridescent kererū or the soft calls of the ruru at night, it can be super exciting to see these birds in our backyards, but as we learn to live with these species in an urban environment, it is important to be conscious of how we interact with them.

At Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne, we recommend planting native trees and shrubs, rather than putting out sugar water feeders or fruit and nuts to attract birds to your gardens.

Here are a few reasons why:

1.            Nutrients

Manu/birds have evolved alongside our native trees and are able to get the nutrients that they need from these plants. While they love eating kai like nuts, these foods are a bit like junk food to native birds and can have negative impacts on their health. Feeding kākā the wrong foods can lead to metabolic bone disease, especially during breeding season as adults bring food back to the nest for their developing chicks.

Metabolic bone disease occurs when the food the parent birds feed their chicks leads to a lower level of calcium. This can result in a number of abnormalities, including distorted limbs and ‘scissor beak’, which is where the beak crosses over making it difficult for the bird to eat.

2.            Diseases

We all know the importance of social distancing from COVID-19. Feeders can be a breeding ground for diseases that spread throughout bird populations when birds all flock to one place, or when feeders are not cleaned properly. For example, some kākā have died due to salmonella and toxoplasmosis present in at-home feeders, both of which can also pose a risk to humans.

Instead, trees provide space for manu to safely spread out, and as the tree changes throughout the seasons, attract birds of different kinds at different times.

3.            Predation

As well as spreading disease, attracting manu to one spot can also make them more vulnerable to predators. In Zealandia Te Māra a Tāne, our fence keeps the birds safe. However, in your backyard, a loud group of manu can be a beacon for cats and other mammalian predators who can take advantage of distracted birds.

4.            Behaviour issues

Kākā are very intelligent manu and spend their energy reserves figuring out how to get food in a variety of different places and ways. We do hear of kākā damaging property, and it seems that this behaviour occurs where kākā can access food too easily. Ordinarily, kākā must work quite hard for their food, but easy access to high-energy food leaves them with time and energy to burn!

Once people start feeding kākā a little bit, the news quickly spreads and the number of birds turning up for some ‘fast food’ can quickly rise. We know of some people around Wellington who have ended up with up to 60-70 kākā in their backyard! These kinds of numbers are pretty overwhelming, and it is unhealthy for kākā and unhealthy for the people. Concerningly, we have also seen spikes in rat numbers where kākā have been fed by humans.

5.            What about the little guys?

Planting trees and shrubs as opposed to just providing bird food also helps everyone in the ecosystem! Lizards love divaricating shrubs, and insects like wētā love to live within tree trunks and small crevices. You’ll also attract other manu who like munching on insects more than drinking nectar, so visitors like pīwakawaka, riroriro and tauhou will be regulars in your garden.

We recommend using eco-sourced plants, which are plants that are sourced and naturally occur in the area you live in. To find out which plants are good for your area or home, check out a local nursery for help or check out this helpful guide from the Department of Conservation.

Photo credits: Tauhou - Melyssa F.T, Kākā - Tom Lynch

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