How you could kill native birds in your backyard with kindness

Fat t, or puffy silver eyes may look cute, but the native birds could be suffering from deadly salmonella or intestinal parasites.

Kiwi bird lovers have flooded social media with photos of dead or sick birds in their gardens, and experts say the culprit may be unsanitary backyard food.

Birder Ian McLean, Auckland’s representative for Birds NZ, says most people are completely unaware of the dangers, and indeed think they are helping birds by providing food, especially in winter.

However, because birds gather unnaturally at feeders and the feeders themselves are not cleaned on a daily basis, they become breeding grounds for infections.

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“Bird droppings in and around food can cause salmonella infections and intestinal parasites. Salmonella is an absolute killer of birds.”

He says plump feathers are often seen in birds with salmonella and other infections, such as chlamydia.

dr. Josie Galbraith, natural sciences curator at the Auckland Memorial War Museum, says bird feeders are a “hotspot” for infections, which wild birds can pass directly or through droppings, feathers or skin debris left at the stations.

“They can transmit it directly from bird to bird if they’re around,” she says. “You have a really intense population of birds in one place that wouldn’t normally be so close together.”

Campylobacter and yersinia are transmitted in the same way, she says.

These two apparently healthy tauhou/silver eyes were found dead, possibly due to salmonella.

Paul Bolt

These two apparently healthy tauhou/silver eyes were found dead, possibly due to salmonella.

Paul Bolt found two dead silver eyes (tauhou) under an olive tree on his Auckland estate. They showed no signs of injury and would most likely have been affected by salmonella.

Bolt doesn’t feed birds on his own property, but McLean says they most likely flew in from elsewhere.

McLean, a daytime travel agent and lifelong bird watcher, says bread is particularly bad for birds.

“It causes multiple problems and is definitely junk food for birds, full of carbohydrates, yeast and sugars and should never be fed to them.”

Ian McLean is a lifelong bird watcher and is the Auckland Regional Representative for Birds NZ.

Delivered

Ian McLean is a lifelong bird watcher and is the Auckland Regional Representative for Birds NZ.

Bread and scraps also favor “extremely common and problematic” species such as house sparrows, common mynahs, feral pigeons and (in parks) mallards.

“Honestly, we don’t need any more of those super-abundant species.”

He says that while people feed sugar water in the winter out of concern for birds, it’s akin to giving Coca-Cola to children.

“In general, we don’t need to feed the birds extra in the winter. They have been taking care of themselves without us for millions of years.”

McLean points out that birds such as tūī, korimako and silvereyes all survive in the subantarctic Auckland Islands without additional food being provided.

dr. Daria Erastova obtained her doctorate on the subject of sugar water bird feeding.

Specially designed feeders such as the Tui Nectar Feeder do not allow the accumulation of bird droppings.

tuigarden.co.nz

Specially designed feeders such as the Tui Nectar Feeder do not allow the accumulation of bird droppings.

She concluded that if people want to feed birds in their backyard, like about one in five households, they should choose commercially available feeders specifically designed to minimize the risk of contamination with feces and feathers.

They should provide sugar water “only in winter during the coldest months”.

“I recommend stopping supplementary feeding in the spring and summer to allow birds to use natural food sources, pollinate native plants, and minimize the risk of bacterial growth at high ambient temperatures.”

She also recommended cleaning bird feeders thoroughly with hot water and scrubbing.

“Don’t use bleach or detergents.”

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Finally, she recommends placing feeding stations away from trees and fences so cats don’t attack “or other invasive predators.”

McLean says the commercial bird seed industry is partly responsible for the message that we need to feed birds.

“It’s a huge industry that sends that message, and it’s basically to sell products.”

He sometimes puts out sunflower seeds, especially for greenfinches, but he says he mainly attracts birds by having a natural garden and dropping fruit on the ground. “And then silver eyes, song thrushes and blackbirds come down and eat them.”

Galbraith says people love feeding birds in their gardens, and research shows that taking a tough stance on it doesn’t work.

“It connects you so strongly to the wildlife in your area, people are really passionate about it,” she says.

Instead, she recommends moderation and feeding in less risky ways, recognizing that this benefits the humans, not the birds.

McLean’s suggestions instead of using bird feeders

  • Plant trees, shrubs and flowers to provide insects, nectar, fruits, seeds and shelter for many types of birds, including the insectivorous natives.
  • Install a birdbath in your yard. “This is great for the birds while giving you an excellent opportunity to view them without the bird versus bird aggression that comes with bird feeders.”
  • If you must feed, do not use open food bowls, as these quickly become contaminated with bird droppings.

What is the natural food of our native birds?

The tauhou, or silver eye, feeds on caterpillars, spiders, flies, beetles, fruit from native trees and shrubs.

123RF

The tauhou, or silver eye, feeds on caterpillars, spiders, flies, beetles, fruit from native trees and shrubs.

Silver eye or tauhou

Feeds on: invertebrates including caterpillars, spiders, flies and beetles, fruit from native trees and shrubs, and nectar from shrubs such as fuchsia, kōwhai and banksias.

Pīwakawaka or fantail

Feeds on: larvae, spiders and insects, many of which it catches on the wings, although it also targets insects disturbed by digging.

Kaka

Feeds on: shoots, flowers, fruits and berries, as well as nectar from rata and pohutukawa, honeydew from beech trees and insect larvae.

The kōtare feeds on insects, earthworms, lizards, mice, mud crabs and fish.

Nicole Farmilo

The kōtare feeds on insects, earthworms, lizards, mice, mud crabs and fish.

Kingfisher or kōtare

Feeds on: Insects, earthworms, lizards, mice, mud crabs and fish.

Korimako or bell bird

Feeds on: The nectar of plants including kowhai, pohutukawa, rata and flax. In the fall, he also eats fruits and invertebrates.

Wood pigeon or kerer

Feeds on: The fruit of native trees and shrubs, especially the fruit of karaka and puriri, as well as shoots, flowers and leaves.

SOURCE: NZ Gardener

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