The urban bird’s menu

Australian cities are home to some of the most beautiful bird species. If we want them to stay, we need to ensure they have a healthy diet.

Art by Khanh Tran

In February 2022, ABC released a documentary titled The Secret Lives of our Urban Birds. Bird lovers across Australia flocked to their televisions to watch. In it, Australian nature journalist, Dr Ann Jones, uncovers Melbourne’s urban prominent yet poorly understood birdlife. She brilliantly documents a variety of urban bird species, capturing their unique ability to survive in unnatural environments such as a human-dominated city. Specifically, the documentary captures just how adaptable birds are to unforgiving Australian urban landscapes.

The Australian Magpie, a feared but intelligent insectivore known as the urban survivalist, becomes the star of the show. But, predictably, living in an environment hostile to Australian wildlife populations means magpies and many other species face unique challenges to their survival. 

The cunning magpie typically eats grubs and bugs by foraging on the ground. The beauty of this species is immense. Unfortunately, so is the extent to which urban landscapes have shaped their behaviour. Facilities and residential homes that encroach on and minimise their feeding territory limit the space for magpies to forage or nest. Being survivalists, they have developed a habitat of taking food from you instead!

Our local universities have significant green space for birds to roost, nest, and feed. Students like to sit amongst these green spaces for a well-deserved escape from the library and study. A simple scenario of sitting and enjoying your time outside is where birds (and magpies especially) tend to accompany and sit idly by you, waiting for you to give something up. Of course, if you have a snack in hand or a delicious lunch, they’ll see it too. 

Many of us engage with avian wildlife by feeding them. A reported 30-60% of Australian households actively feed wild birds, states Professor Darryl Jones, an Australian ecologist. It is a popular way for people to become familiar with birds in their backyard and around their area.  

Unfortunately, improper feeding can cause numerous health and behavioural issues. It is worth noting the specifics are contested, with benefits and drawbacks aplenty. WIRES, an Australian Wildlife Rescue Organisation, mentions this issue often when touring across Australia, warning against feeding native bird species as it ‘humanises’ foraging behaviour. 

Territorial aggression also becomes more pronounced when food sources are limited or too exhausting to locate near nesting sites. Accordingly, native birds will happily rely on humans as a resource. If we continue to offer food with minimal hesitancy and disregard how to feed appropriately, they can become dependent. This is the case whether we deliberately feed them or do so indirectly by leaving rubbish scraps on the ground.

Feeding birds shouldn’t be discouraged, however. For some species, feeding can help stabilise or even increase an urban bird population. Some ways of feeding your local wildlife are more responsible than others, though.

Queensland’s Department of Environment and Science list several vital questions you need to ask yourself before committing to feeding birds. Crucially, they also provide guidance on what, how, and how much you should be feeding according to species. Adhering to these guidelines will help your new friends remain healthy without acquiring undesirable behavioural traits. 

No matter what, birds are a part of our urban life. Your actions have consequences. So, let’s do our best to ensure all avian species get a healthy urban menu.