Below is some advice on feeding wild birds in New Zealand. It is divided into three sections: what to feed birds, bird feeders, and the pros and cons of feeding birds.
What to feed birds
Foods offered to birds may be divided into bread, seed, fruit, fat, and sugar-water (or nectar). Fat, fruit, and seed may be mixed together to make ‘bird cakes’.
Different foods attract different species of birds:
- Bread attracts introduced species such as house sparrow, starling, and myna.
- Seed attracts introduced species such as house sparrow, greenfinch, chaffinch, goldfinch, and dunnock.
- Fruit attracts native species such as silvereye, bellbird, and tui (and also kaka and hihi where they are present) and also introduced species such as blackbird and starling.
- Fat attracts silvereye and starling.
- Sugar-water attracts native species such as silvereye, bellbird, and tui (and also kaka and hihi where they are present).
The best foods to attract native birds are fruit and sugar-water. Be aware it may take a while for birds to find the food you put out.
Bread is the food most frequently offered to birds in New Zealand. It attracts house sparrow and several other species of introduced birds such as starling and myna. It also attracts silvereye. There is much discussion on the internet about the pros and cons of feeding bread to birds. The UK Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB) says that bread is an acceptable food but it should not be offered in large quantities because it fills birds up without providing them with all the proteins and fats they need. Bread is also high in carbohydrate and salt. Thus, a bird that eats mainly bread may suffer from serious malnutrition. Don’t feed mouldy bread to birds. And don’t leave bread out on the ground overnight because it may attract rats.
Large seeds (e.g. unsalted peanuts, sunflower seeds, wheat, and barley) attract the larger introduced species such as house sparrow, greenfinch, and chaffinch, whereas small seeds (e.g. millet and nyjer seeds) attract the smaller introduced species such as goldfinch and dunnock. You can buy a variety of bird seeds from pet shops, supermarkets, or online (e.g. http://topflite.co.nz/wild-birds). Some are more suitable for caged birds than for wild birds. “Wild bird seed” or “Wild bird mix” (a mixture of different types of seeds) is likely to attract a wider range of bird species than single-seed varieties. If offering peanuts to birds, keep them dry otherwise they may contain aflatoxins, lethal to birds. Use unsalted not salted peanuts because salt is harmful to birds (see “Some no no’s” below). Seeds are best placed on a bird table or in a bird feeder, away from cats. See below for different types of bird feeders for seed.
Fresh fruit (including fresh bruised fruit) such as apple, pear, and orange, cut up, attracts native species such as silvereye, bellbird, and tui (and also kaka and hihi where they are present). It also attracts introduced species such as blackbird and starling. Dried fruit, such as raisins, sultanas, and currants also attracts birds. Soak the dried fruit in water overnight, and then place it in an open container on a bird table. Some people recommend that kiwifruit not be feed to birds to prevent its seeds being distributed into native bush. See below for different types of bird feeders for fruit.
Fat is an excellent source of energy for small birds in winter, when their body reserves are used up quickly. However, the only species of native bird in New Zealand attracted to fat is the silvereye. Use only suet (raw beef or mutton fat from around the heart and kidneys), lard (raw or rendered pig fat), or vegetable fat (shortening). According to the RSPB, fat left over from cooking is bad for birds. It can get smeared onto birds' feathers, destroying their waterproofing and insulating properties. It may also harbour bacteria and contain high levels of salt, harmful to birds. Unlike humans, birds need high levels of saturated fat, such as in raw suet (55% saturated fat), lard (39% saturated fat), and hydrogenated vegetable fat (34% saturated fat). Peanut butter (11% saturated fat) is also suitable for birds provided it is unsalted. Polyunsaturated margarines and vegetable oils are unsuitable for birds because they contain insufficient saturated fat.
You can buy fat balls from butchers and supermarkets. These are raw fat trimmings from beef or mutton, wrapped in mesh bags. Fat balls in mesh bags can be hung conveniently from the branches of trees, out of reach of cats. However, the RSPB recommends removing the mesh bags because birds’ feet may become caught up in them. If you do this, you will need to put the fat balls on a feeding table or in a special feeder. Alternatively, you can buy commercially-made ‘bird cakes’ containing mainly vegetable fat (e.g. http://topflite.co.nz/wild-birds/energy-food) and special feeders to put the bird cakes in (e.g. http://topflite.co.nz/wild-birds/feeders), avoiding the problem of mesh bags.
You can also make your own fat balls or bird cakes. The following bird cake recipe has been adapted from various sources, including the RSPB and Forest & Bird websites (but I haven’t yet made it!).
- saucepan or bowl,
- empty small plastic yoghurt pottles or 1-litre plastic milk bottles,
- scissors and
- suet and
- one or more other ingredients such as wild bird seed, currants, raisins, sultanas, grated cheese, pasta, rice, cooked potatoes, vegetables, pet biscuits.
- Use approximately one part suet to two parts other ingredients.
- Place the suet in a saucepan on low heat, or in a bowl in hot water, until it softens – it doesn't have to become completely liquid. It is important to soften the suet slowly so that you don't overheat it and thus don’t de-nature it.
- When it is the consistency of a paste, take it off the heat and stir in other ingredients.
- Let the mixture cool a little before pouring it into containers.
- If using small plastic yoghurt pottles, make a hole in the bottom of each pottle, thread string through the hole so that it protrudes about 150 mm above the rim, and tie a knot on the end of the string outside the bottom of the pottle to stop it pulling further through.
- Pack the warm suet mixture into the pottle, keeping the string roughly in the centre, and place in the fridge overnight to set.
- When set, hang outside by tying the string to a tree branch or other structure.
- If using plastic milk bottles, cut a hole in one side of each bottle, with the bottom of the hole about 50 mm from the bottom of the bottle. The hole should be large enough to let a small bird enter. Pack the warm suet mixture into the bottom of the bottle and place in the fridge overnight to set.
- When set, hang by tying one end of string around the top of the bottle and the other end around a tree branch or other structure so that the top of the bottle hangs forward over the hole, to keep out the rain.
Fat balls (and bird cakes) may attract starlings as well as silvereyes. Starlings like to perch on top of the fat ball, whereas silvereyes can access all parts of the fat ball, including hanging upside down from the bottom. If you wish, you can reduce starling access by putting a ‘cap’ or ‘lid’ over the top of the fat ball. One way to do this is to cut the bottom out of an ice-cream container, make slit from one side through to the middle, and pull the slit edges so they overlap to make a conical cap. Staple the overlapping edges together to hold them in place. Then thread the string holding the fat ball through the middle of the cap before hanging it up.
Sugar-water attracts the native silvereye, bellbird, and tui (and also kaka and hihi where they are present). Make a sugar solution of one part sugar to four or five parts water (e.g. 150–200 g of sugar in a 1 litre container). Most people use white sugar but Zealandia (www.visitzealandia.com) recommends using brown sugar or raw sugar. Some people recommend boiling the solution briefly to sterilize and dissolve the sugar crystals. If you do this, make sure the solution is cold before giving it to the birds. Put the sugar-water in open containers on a bird table or in special bird feeders hanging from tree branches or other structures. See below for different types of bird feeders for sugar-water.
Honey. Never put out honey or honey-water for birds. Birds love it but so do bees, so this practice can spread bee diseases.
Milk. The RSPB advises to never give milk to birds. A bird's gut is not designed to digest milk and it can result in serious stomach upsets, or even death. Birds can, however, digest fermented dairy products such as cheese.
Cooked porridge. The RSPB advises never use cooked porridge because it is glutinous and could harden around a bird's beak. Uncooked porridge oats are acceptable, however, and are readily eaten by several introduced species such as house sparrow and greenfinch. Unlike cooked porridge, cooked rice (brown or white, unsalted) is suitable for birds, and is readily eaten by a number of introduced species such as house sparrow and greenfinch. Uncooked rice may also be eaten by birds such as rock pigeons, doves, and pheasants but is less likely to attract smaller species.
Coconut. The RSPB advises never use desiccated coconut because it may swell once inside a bird and cause death. Give fresh coconut only, in the shell. Rinse out any residues of the coconut water from the middle of the coconut before putting it out, to prevent the build-up of black mildew.
Dry cat or dog biscuits. The RSPB does not recommend using dry cat or dog biscuits because they can catch in a bird's throat and may cause it to choke. However, soaked cat or dog biscuits are suitable to use, provided they don’t dry out. Meat-based canned cat and dog food is also suitable. Cat and dog foods attract introduced species such as blackbirds.
Mouldy and stale food. The RSPB recommends not using mouldy food. Many moulds are harmless, but some can cause respiratory infections in birds. Remove food from bird feeders when it goes stale. Stale food provides a breeding ground for salmonella bacteria, which can cause food poisoning and even death.
Salt. Garden birds are practically unable to metabolise salt. It is toxic to them in high quantities and affects their nervous system. So, never put out salted food for birds. And, never add salt to bird baths to keep water ice-free in the winter.
Some foods can be scattered on the ground (e.g. bread and fruit) but others require to be put in some sort of container or feeder. You can make your own feeder or buy one from a pet shop, supermarket, hardware store, or online (e.g. http://topflite.co.nz/wild-birds/feeders).
A feeding table is just a platform where you can place bread, seeds, fruit, fat, or sugar-water for birds. A bird table with a rim is best, so that food doesn't fall off it, and with a drain so that food doesn't become water-logged. The RSPB has some good advice about how to make your own bird table and where to locate it in the garden (see www.rspb.org.uk/advice/helpingbirds/feeding/birdtables/index.aspx). Wash bird tables regularly with a disinfectant solution to help prevent the spread of bacteria and parasites.
You can buy seed feeders from pet shops or online (e.g. http://topflite.co.nz/wild-birds/feeders). With a bit of effort you can also make your own.
Instead of attaching pieces of fruit (such as apple) to nails on a bird feeder, you can buy fruit feeders that you can hang from the branch of a tree (e.g. http://topflite.co.nz/wild-birds/feeders), or you can make your own.
You can buy sugar-water feeders from pet shops or online (e.g. http://topflite.co.nz/wild-birds/feeders) or you can make your own.
The following make-your-own design is adapted from Forest & Bird (www.forestandbird.org.nz/saving-our-environment/make-bird-feeder-your-garden).
- Take a small plastic screw-top bottle (such as a 1.5 litre lemonade bottle) and make two or three very small holes half a centimetre from the bottom of the bottle – this will allow the sugar solution to come out of the bottle up to the height of the holes.
- Sit the bottle in a shallow dish with a diameter about 40 cm wider than the bottle, and with sides that are higher than the holes in the bottle.
- Fill the bottle (sitting in the dish) and quickly screw the lid back on tightly (to prevent the solution completely draining out of the bottle).
- Place the feeder on a bird table, the top of a post, or other safe place where cats can’t get at it. Alternatively, you can glue the bottle inside the dish and glue a piece of dowel or piece of thin wood under the dish so it pokes out either side for a perch, and hang the bottle from the branch of a tree.
Feeders should be washed every few days with very hot water and kept scrupulously clean to prevent the growth of mould.
Bird baths provide a source of drinking water for birds as well as a place for birds to bathe. They will attract many species, and may be used year round. Bird baths should be located at least 1.5 m high, out in the open where cats cannot ambush birds using them. Wash bird baths regularly to prevent the build up of algae and bacteria.
Pros and Cons of feeding birds
There is much debate about the pros and cons of feeding wild birds. Claimed negative effects include the spread of bird diseases, increased risk of predation, increased aggression and stress, nutritional imbalance, dependence on human-provided food, and an over-abundance of dominant or unpopular species. Claimed positive effects of feeding wild birds include improved survival of birds over winter, enhancement of threatened bird populations, increased environmental awareness among the human population, and enjoyment for people who feed birds.
Claimed negative effects of feeding wild birds
- Disease. Aggregations of birds around sources of supplementary food may increase the risk of disease transfer between birds.
- Predation. Aggregations of birds around sources of supplementary food may attract predators (e.g. cats), increasing the risk of predation, especially if the congregating birds become less wary. Thus, it is important to put food for birds out of reach of cats.
- Nutritional imbalance. Bread is the most common supplementary food provided for birds in New Zealand, but it is high in carbohydrate and salt and does not contain all the proteins and fats that birds need, so a bird that eats mainly bread may suffer from serious malnutrition.
- Aggressiveness and stress. Competition between birds at a feeding site can result in aggressiveness and stress, leading to increased risk of injury, illness, and death.
- Dependence on human-provided food. With so much human-provided food readily available, it is argued that birds must surely become dependent on this food, perhaps even losing their natural foraging skills. However, research has shown that birds with ready access to supplementary food use only a small proportion of this food, and survive even when provision of the food was suddenly stopped.
- Over-abundance of dominant or undesirable species. Providing supplementary food for birds can result in a build up of unnaturally large numbers of certain species. The species that benefit most are those that are already common (e.g. house sparrow) or undesirable (e.g. starling and myna, which may drive away native species). In New Zealand, this problem may be avoided to some extent by providing fruit and sugar-water (which attract native species such as silvereye, bellbird, and tui) rather than bread and seeds (which attract introduced species such as house sparrow and greenfinch). Research has shown that, on average, feeding wild birds does not increase the number of species visiting gardens. However, it does increase the number of species visiting some gardens (e.g. where sugar-water attracts bellbirds and hihi).
Claimed benefits of feeding wild birds
- Improved survival of birds over winter. Research has shown that provision of supplementary food may increase the over-winter survival of birds, and result in them breeding earlier and more often the following summer. However, it does not appear to result in larger clutch sizes or increased survival of chicks.
- Enhancement of threatened populations. In the UK, it is claimed that domestic gardens support a high proportion of the total population of certain species of birds that are declining nationally, such as house sparrow, blackbird, and song thrush, with supplementary food providing a crucial resource in winter. This is not the situation in New Zealand, or at least not yet, but several native species do visit domestic gardens in winter.
- Increased environmental awareness among people who feed birds. It is claimed that people who feed wild birds are more likely to care about conservation and the environment than those who don’t, but this is unproven.
- Enjoyment. People enjoy feeding birds for a variety of reasons. Most people feel it brings them closer to nature, an important factor in our ever-increasingly urbanised world. Some people feel they are ‘doing good’, helping birds survive the rigours of winter. Others simply enjoy the company of their feathered friends.
Evans KL, Chamberlain DE, Hatchwell BJ, Gregory RD, Gaston KJ 2011. What makes an urban bird? Global Change Biology 17: 32–44 (http://doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2486.2010.02247.x)
Jones D 2011. An appetite for connection: why we need to understand the effect and value of feeding wild birds. Emu 111: i–vii (http://dx.doi.org/10.1071/MUv111n2_ED).
Robb GN, McDonald RA, Chamberlain DE, Bearhop S 2008. Food for thought: supplementary feeding as a driver of ecological change in avian populations. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6: 476–484 (http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/060152).
Here are some websites that provide advice about attracting birds to your garden, what to feed birds, and how to make bird feeders.
- Audubon: Bird feeding basics
- BTO: Feeding garden birds
- Department of Conservation: Make a pine cone bird feeder
- Forest & Bird: Make a bird feeder for your garden
- NZ birds: Feeding the Birds
- RSPB: What food to provide
- Te Ara: Bird feeder
- Topflite: Wild Bird Food
- Wikipedia: Bird Feeding
- Department of Conservation: Attract birds to your garden