Why Not to Feed Wild Birds But How to Safely Attract Them

Pair of King Parrots

When you decide to spend your life enslaved to a pet bird, you’re not doing it because you like their ‘chewed-on style’ decorating help. Usually it has something to do with you actually liking birds. Not surprisingly, bird people have a tendency to not just welcome wild birds into their garden, but to actively encourage them to show up.

Which brings me to the controversial topic of feeding wild birds. You might think it isn’t a controversial topic, but by the end of this post – you’re possibly going to change your mind.

I don’t feed wild birds and I actively campaign to stop others from doing so. Actually, I’d extend that to any wildlife. I don’t have a feeding station in my yard and I won’t leave food out. I have very good reasons for doing that.

Australian Northern Honeyeaters (eating bread)

I’ve talked before about the threat that wild birds can pose to domestic birds. Wild birds carry diseases that are highly contagious which you just don’t want to risk exposing your personal flock to. Some of these diseases are very difficult (if not impossible) to treat. The results are heartbreaking. It’s a good reason to want to keep wild birds away from your own but it’s only part of the reason why I don’t have a feeding station in my yard.

My real reason is for the sake of the wild birds themselves. I want them to be around for future generations and I hate to say it but the reality is that the existence of bird-feeding stations in people’s backyards is one of the major threats to the conservation of our native species. In my eyes, bird feeders are more dangerous than feral cats. No one is going to say a cat hunting and destroying wildlife is a good thing – they’re a recognised threat. Bird feeding stations on the other hand appear to be innocently helping wildlife, when they are in fact doing the opposite.

A Kookaburra perched above a lake, watching for small fish.

Ok, so what makes them dangerous?

Ask yourself what does a wild bird do all day? Well the answer to that is that they spend most of their day foraging for food. That’s why we spend so much time working on giving our pet birds foraging opportunities, right? We recognise foraging as an important part of a bird’s life. So this makes me wonder why do we think it is ok to put up feeding stations in our yards effectively encouraging wild birds to stop foraging?

Ok, a little loss in mental stimulation isn’t going to kill a wild bird, right? They can go tear a tree to shreds or scratch in some mud for fun, or something. That’s true enough. BUT a feeding station has created an easy source of food for them and they consequently will spend more time in this one location than they would otherwise do.

A mix of wild long and short billed corellas foraging in a patch of clover.

So next question: what does a bird do if it stays in one area for longer periods of time? The answer is poo. A bird feeding station attracts a lot of birds to spend a lot of time in one location, which equals a concentration of bird poo in that surrounding area. Bird feeding stations are effectively the equivalent of a giant public bird toilet. Lovely thought, isn’t it?

So here’s the scary bit – how are most bird diseases spread? Through poo, some sort of bodily discharge or feather dust.

Now consider that many of the diseases in the wild bird population are disinfectant resistant. This is why the veterinary grade disinfectants exist. Now honestly ask yourself how many people are cleaning their outdoor bird feeders to that standard on a daily basis? Or are they even cleaning them at all? And even if you clean yours – does your neighbour? Because you can bet the birds visit your neighbour’s feeder too and you’ve just attracted that bird and whatever disease it picked up at your neighbour’s to your yard.

Black swan harassing Uni students for their lunch.

Ok, so if this hasn’t scared you yet – maybe my next question will: What does a sick wild bird do? It’s not going to have the energy or capacity to forage in the same way a healthy bird does. It’s going to be attracted to an easy feed. Actually if it finds an ‘easy feed’ it’s going to want to rest somewhere close by rather than move on.

An outdoor bird feeder is effectively a type of trap for healthy birds. It encourages them to come to a place where sick birds are going to be.

One of my most common wild bird rescue callouts is when a member of the public, telephones in a report of a ‘sick looking’ bird coming in to their backyard bird feeder. I’d say 90% of these cases turn out to be a disease called PBFD, which is highly contagious and usually lethal. Wild bird feeders are a major reason for this disease spreading like it does.

That’s depressing, so let’s put all the disease talk aside for a minute and pretend we live in a world where everyone disinfects their feeding stations correctly and no birds carry diseases. After all the disease situation in Australia is different from other parts of the world. The problem is, I still wouldn’t feed wild birds in a disease free world either. Unfortunately there’s a whole other way bird feeders kill birds.

Brolga looking for food

As pet bird owners, we spend a lot of time discussing our bird’s dietary needs. Birdtricks.com even has the All Natural Feeding course to help people understand this. We no longer live in a world where everyone just chucks a bowl of seed into a cage with a cheery “Here you go!”

I haven’t met anyone who has put the same amount of effort into the dietary needs of the birds that visit their wild bird feeder. Scarily most people tend to buy the $5 bag of “wild bird seed mix” at their supermarket and go from there. You know the bags that have the all-black sunflower seeds in them? i.e. the ones that have an even higher fat content than the pin-striped seeds we all like to use as treats.

Top: Domestic duck living wild. Bottom: Wood duck. Both are circling hoping the human with the camera is going to throw food.

The reality is, many wild birds aren’t actually seed eaters. Many eat a diet that includes insects and small animals like mice. I definitely don’t know anyone who cuts up dead mice with a pair of scissors in order to place those body parts into a wild bird feeder! I do know people who feed wild birds mince meat, in order to meet their ‘meat eating’ needs. I can’t help but cringe when I think of the preservatives in that.

Male eclectus parrot with "Angel wing". See the blue feathers on his wings that stick out? Poor nutrition has caused this birds's wing joints to rotate. This condition is incurable and is commonly found in water birds that have been living on a diet of bread (thanks to us humans). 

I think this is where the topic of feeding wild birds becomes controversial. I’ve had people tell me they’ve been feeding birds for years and the same ones keep coming back – they’re not sick. Actually it’s a regular fight that I have with one of my neighbours. She’s right the same adults do keep coming back and they do appear to “love” her for it.

She doesn’t see the real consequences of it though. In one breeding season I personally took 7 juvenile magpies to a local vet to be euthanized. That’s 7 birds from my own street; that’s a very small percentage of the total number I dealt with from other areas in that particular season.

These birds came out of the nest and broke bones immediately. They couldn’t fly to get away from predators. They couldn’t even walk. The incorrect diet that their parents were on meant that the babies turned out so calcium deficient that their bones just shattered. It’s not a fixable scenario. They needed a certain amount of strength to survive in the wild and these birds just didn’t have it. Their bones were breaking in too many places – way too easily. There’s nothing more heartbreaking than having to deal with a baby bird in this situation and it’s more common that you think.

This is a juvenile raven who had a frightening number of broken bones. If you look closely you can see that every toe on his left foot is pointing in the wrong direction. Both wings had breaks in them as well. The woman whose yard he came from told me I had to "save" him because she was very fond of his parents - she had been feeding them for years.

Well as you can imagine, I got very frustrated with my neighbour. Not being able to convince her any other way I actually wound up getting her to come with me to the vet to hear the ‘euthanize’ verdict for one case herself. It’s a bit different when you’re the one that has to deal with the consequences.

Unfortunately she still has a bird feeder but now she mixes a product called ‘insectivore’ in with her mince (a handrearing mix used by wildlife rescuers for these sorts of birds). It’s better than nothing and admittedly I only had 2 magpies come in from my own street last year.

It tells me that even if you’re putting a healthy diet in your feeder you’re still training the wild birds that bird feeders are a great source of food – so the birds are no doubt keeping an eye out for them and have other neighbours (who don’t feed a correct diet) on their list of places to visit. Even if you’re feeding the correct wild diet, you’re effectively encouraging the birds to perform a dangerous behaviour.

I should also mention that (while not such an issue in Australia), some birds won’t migrate when they are supposed to, simply because food has been made available to them.  The results of that are often lethal as they wind up being caught in a weather system that they are just not physically equipped to deal with. 

Give them a suitable tree and they will come. Flock of wild Rosebreasted Cockatoos/Galahs

All is not lost if you want to attract wild birds to your yard though. There are safe ways of doing it.

I am a huge fan of birdbaths. In a heatwave these can save an animal’s life. I’m not just talking the elevated type here, I love the dish on the ground as well. These do help our natives survive. Sometimes water can be hard to find and it’s important that we help with that. You’re not going to do any nutritional damage with water and supplying it is not going to encourage a bird to stay for excessive (dangerous) amounts of time. Birdbaths are not the public toilet that a food bowl can become.

The other way to safely attract birds is to have the right sort of garden. Think about what you plant. Choose plants and trees that birds can forage in. Another thing to think about is choosing plants that will attract insects, which will in turn attract insect-eating birds. Do whatever you can to encourage them to eat their natural diet, it’s a lot safer than encouraging them to pursue an artificial one.

Wild Rosebreasted Cockatoos/Galahs in flight

Mel Vincent works as an animal rehabilitator out of Australia.



Thanks for adding an alternative! I love it. We live in an area where there is little water. A bird bath sounds like a great addition we could add. And we don’t feed the birds but they do take a generous cut from my vegetable garden.

Jye Abram

Wow mel thanks so much!! this taught me a lot i will now know what to do!!!

Jye Abram

The sad thing here is in winter with deep snow the birds need help. But recently it came to light a manufacturer of wild seed for garden birds was deliberately poisoning the feed we all bought in the UK. He was sentenced I believe. But we are trying to elp in winter when food is scarce but not in spring summer and autumn. I agree feeding is a bad thing in those warmer months. To attract birds plant plants they enjoy. That simple.


Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published