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Posted on 31 Oct 2019 in Non-Fiction |

DARRYL JONES Feeding the Birds at Your Table: A guide for Australia. Reviewed by Tracy Sorensen

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Many Australians enjoy feeding our native birds. In this guide Darryl Jones suggests better ways to do it.

‘Just Say No’ campaigns against pre-marital sex in the United States tend to fail miserably. That doesn’t stop conservative governments attempting to re-install them every time they return to power. Abstinence-only campaigns don’t cut unplanned teen pregnancies but they do allow the Christian Right to breathe easier.

In Australia, we have our own Just Say No brigade, and its results are just as ineffective. When it comes to feeding birds, just about every potential source of authoritative information on what to feed native birds and how to do it offers the same injunction: Just don’t. Local councils, vets, national parks – all offer the same simple head-shake. Nope. Feeding birds will cause the two Ds: dependency and disease. Wild birds will lose their ability to forage for themselves and you’ll upset their stomachs or make them fat or transmit germs from dirty feeders and water baths. So just don’t, okay?

The problem with this approach, argues Darryl Jones in Feeding the Birds at Your Table, is that it’s not stopping anybody beyond relatively small circles of committed environmentalists. Bird feeding is like teenage sex: it’s more or less unstoppable. Jones cites a study showing that a whopping 38 per cent of Australian households are actively engaged in bird-feeding.

But while it doesn’t stop the practice, Just Say No does make people feel vaguely guilty and a little secretive. This is at odds with the situation in the UK and the US, where ornithological societies openly promote the practice and freely disseminate information about what and how to feed those little blue tits and cardinals. But the practice in Australia is almost completely divorced from science and proper advice. Jones lists some of the food eaten by native birds in our backyards: popular treats include salami, potato chips, cake, bread and cheese.

We’re all aware of this off-script activity. If I walk down to the end of my street, I’m warbled at by the tame magpies on the fence of the woman who feeds them mince every morning. I recently watched a magpie drinking from the water bowl meant for dogs at my little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop. The young barista came over with a follow-up bit of bickie for it to peck at. The magpie was perfectly at home among the assorted creatures – human, dog, bird – gathered on the footpath. Then there’s my precious memory of Dad feeding the butcher bird bits of raw meat on the railing of his back deck, where he had a comfy chair, a pair of binoculars and a worn copy of Pizzey and Knight’s field guide to Australian birds.

Jones is a trained ecologist who has shifted away from the Just Say No approach. He is aware that this feeding guide, grouping types of birds (insectivores, nectar-eaters, granivores, etc.) together with (relatively) healthy feeding options is likely to be controversial:

I’m sticking my head out by writing this book. For a large number of people – many of whom I count as friends and colleagues – the idea that anyone could actually be promoting the feeding of wild birds is fairly worrying, maybe even unforgivable.

Jones has decided to stick his head out because he believes the birds he cares about are not being served by our unofficial policy of denial. Convinced that millions of Australians are motivated by ‘compassion, appreciation and care’ he plumps for engagement and proper advice over pointless admonishment. He argues that with good advice, the practice can be made more ethical, responsible and sustainable than it is now.

Besides listing healthier options for each type of bird, Jones also gives advice on the total backyard care of birds. This includes an exploration of different types of feeding contraptions for different types of birds – platforms for big birds, hoppers for small grains, or dispensers for nectar – and a section on why baths and feeding structures must be kept clean to prevent the spread of disease. He also gives advice on the need for dense foliage as cover for small birds (protection against larger birds and cats) and why it pays to create ‘structural complexity’ in backyard plantings, ensuring the full range of ground vegetation, shrubs and canopy trees. (In many traditional backyards, with their central lanes of lawn with plantings along the fence line, the shrubby middle layer, where small birds can hide, is often missing.)

But what about dependency? If you’ve made your backyard into a comfortable restaurant, won’t that compromise the birds’ ability to fend for themselves? Jones stresses the importance of providing small amounts of food – snacks instead of meals. Wild birds need to obtain most of their food themselves.

So, let us return to the magpie eating the biscuit at the coffee shop, or the magpies on the fence at the end of my street. It’s common sense that the sugary bickie is junk food, but what about mince? It turns out that mince is almost as bad for magpies as biscuits, because it contains no calcium, a mineral found in abundance in the magpies’ natural diet. Jones urges those who feed mince to magpies to at least mix it with a calcium supplement. Better still, for the truly dedicated, he gives a recipe that is even more nutritious: finely chopped raw chicken frames, raw eggs, Weetbix, commercially-available insectivore mix and a little grated cheese.

And what about the bird close to my own heart, the pink and grey galah? We had a caged galah when I was a child and I remember her gorging on the big fat black sunflower seeds on a drying seed head that we grew just for her. Turns out black sunflower seed – Jones calls it ‘the most popular birdseed in the known universe’ is just way too fatty to be healthy in any quantity. Oops. Australian parrots evolved on a far less fatty diet, and are better off eating the ‘parrot pellets’, containing a variety of seeds, that are sold at vets for domestic pets.

This book may not convince the committed Just Say No brigade, but its harm-minimisation strategy might help to bring the widespread, and yet strangely underground, Australian practice of feeding wild birds into the light. A little less salami, a little more calcium, some denser shrubbery in the backyard … none of this can be a bad thing for the birds feeding at our tables.

Darryl Jones Feeding the Birds at Your Table: A guide for Australia NewSouth Books 2019 PB 192pp $24.99

Tracy Sorensen is the author of the novel The Lucky Galah, longlisted for the 2019 Miles Franklin award. 

You can buy Feeding the Birds at Your Table from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.