How to support native birds in your backyard

Putting out a feeder with sugar water attracts honey-eating native birds like tui. Photo: Aneta...
Putting out a feeder with sugar water attracts honey-eating native birds like tui. Photo: Aneta Foubikova/Unsplash
Around half of New Zealand households feed birds in their backyards - but are we feeding them the right kinds of food?

Dr Margaret Stanley, a professor of ecology at the University of Auckland, says most of us feed birds with bread and seeds, which is unlikely to attract our native species who prefer a sweeter treat.

"We take what's happening overseas and kind of plonk it on the New Zealand context, which doesn't really work," she says.

"In the UK and in the US, places like that, they have a lot of species that eat seed and grain, what we call granivores and in New Zealand, our native species just don't eat those things. we've got a lot of the honey eaters, things that eat nectar and fruit.

"So when we put out this seed and this grain and bread, then all we do is attract large numbers of sparrows and pigeons and things like that and it tends to push out our little native species."

To attract and support native birds like tui, some people put out sugar water for them to feed on - which Stanley says can be helpful for the birds in winter, but at other times could prove a distraction.

"There are some concerns about it, that perhaps there might be more disease if birds are hanging around feeders, perhaps they're not spending that time pollinating native flowers and dispersing seeds and doing their job they should be."

She suggests that rather than feeding them all year round, save the sugar water for winter - but be sure to keep the feeder clean.

Stanley's research found that birds in gardens with feeders had about four-and-a-half times more coccidia - an organism which causes severe digestive problems in birds.

She recommends cleaning backyard feeders at least twice a week by scrubbing them with hot water.

"Because of course all the birds are congregating around feeders and unfortunately bringing their lice and their pathogens in their faeces," she says.

The type of feeder used can also help prevent the spread of disease - Stanley recommends a specialised feeder with holes designed for honey eaters with long tongues, as it's less likely that faeces will make it inside.

Another way to help support your neighbourhood bird population is to install a bird bath, particularly doing long dry summers where water sources are limited.

"It's definitely a great idea to have a water bath and often you can see some really good behavioural interaction and have that connection instead of the effort of putting out those feeders," Stanley says.

They also must be cleaned frequently - "if you're going to put them out for the birds to interact, make sure that they're safe for them."

Feeders and birdbaths should also be kept away from trees, preferably on a tall post, to keep birds safe from predators like cats.

But overall, Stanley says the most important thing we can do for our wildlife is to make sure we're creating bird-friendly habitats in our backyards.

"The sugar water is a little like the cherry on the top for the birds, it's that little extra treat," she says.

"What they actually need is good nesting sites, so really good vegetation in the backyard … but also some natural food sources year-round."

While we tend to focus on flowers and fruit when thinking about food for birds, Stanley says insects are also an important protein source, particularly during breeding season - so consider planting some native plants that attract a lot of native insects, such as manuka.

"Because otherwise you're missing out on birds like the piwakawaka, the fantail, if you're just providing sugar water," she says. "So just to get really healthy bird communities with a lot of those birds rather than a lot of aggressive tui."