Feeding native animals
Just a few little breadcrumbs won't hurt them ... or will it?
Providing food for possums can trigger territory disputes that can leave one, or both possums, seriously injured.
Whether it is leaving food scraps on a backyard feeder for the neighbourhood possum or throwing a crust of bread to a family of ducks in a suburban park, wildlife feeding is something that many people do and enjoy.
While it may be fun to get close to a wild animal, feeding is not always as innocent as it seems—and may actually be harming the wildlife being fed.
This information aims to help you understand the issues surrounding wildlife feeding and how you can enjoy encounters with wildlife in a more natural way.
Wildlife—what's the attraction?
Many people are drawn to wild animals; trying to get as close to them as they can - and feeding can often be the easiest option to make this happen.
But what's the attraction? Studies all over the world have shown that people find animals fascinating to watch and get close to, particularly where the person goes on to develop a bond with an individual animal. This bond often involves caring for the animal and this in turn can mean providing food and even a place to live.
The animals we have today as companions and pets are examples of this bond, a bond that has not only brought these animals closer to their human companions through thousands of years of domestication but has also been responsible for changing their physical appearance and even their behaviour. We need to question what the long-term impacts are on any wild animals that we are feeding today as well as the possibility of any immediate harm.
Questioning the need to feed
When it comes to feeding wildlife it can be difficult to see how it could harm the animals being fed. An easy meal is surely a welcome addition to an animal's diet, saving it the trouble of finding its own food and, on the surface, this may appear to be the case. But there is much more to an individual animal's life than eating.
When thinking about the wellbeing of a wild animal it is important to look beyond the short-term benefits of having a 'free feed' and start to question what the broader implications of feeding might be:
- Will subtle changes to an animal's diet affect its health, its ability to reproduce or even the health of its offspring in the long-term?
Lorikeets feeding from an artificial food source can suffer vitamin E deficiencies leading to muscle damage and paralysis. Artificial diets that lack calcium inhibit bone and feather development in young birds and can cause eggshell failure.
- Is there a risk of spreading disease between animals by attracting them to a common feeding point? Remember the animal that you are feeding could also be getting fed by someone else.
A large localised die-off of rainbow lorikeets in Queensland was caused by a bacterial infection that had been picked up by lorikeets visiting contaminated backyard feeding stations.
- Will feeding encourage an animal to modify its behaviour - and will any changes in behaviour turn that animal into a pest or make it more accustomed to humans (and less like a wild animal)?
A kookaburra that regularly stole food from campers at a popular national park injured a visitor when it flew into her face while trying to take the food she was eating. Feeding large dangerous animals like cassowaries and dingoes has the potential to create dangerous situations that could result in serious injuries and even fatal attacks. Feeding dangerous animals in the wild is also illegal.
- Is feeding attracting all wild animals or is it just benefiting the opportunists that take advantage of the food? Will feeding affect the animal's role in the natural ecosystem and what flow-on effects will this have on the other plants and animals that make up that system?
Butcherbirds readily take advantage of artificial food sources while 'shyer' birds avoid human contact. Concentrations of butcherbirds and other opportunists like currawongs and noisy miners can result in increased aggression towards other species that then interferes with the ability of that species to feed, to behave normally and to reproduce.
- Will feeding expose an animal to its predators and competitors putting it under unnatural stress or risking its life?
Territorial animals like common brushtail possums can gather at artificial food sources and expose themselves to increased aggression from other possums, resulting in a range of injuries and placing these animals under increased stress.
These questions raise real concerns that artificial feeding exposes wildlife to ecological risks that outweigh any short term benefits.
The only animal that truly benefits from wildlife feeding is us and this raises its own questions. Are we happy to feed animals if it may be harming them? If we want to enjoy the company of wild animals, is there a way to do it without exposing them to any harm?
Getting close to wildlife (and letting it feed itself)
Whether it's in a national park or your own backyard, having a close encounter with a wild animal is an experience made special by the fact that wild animals, by their nature, keep away from people. These experiences are also special because getting close to a wild animal is a challenge. The challenge is best met where a person:
- Knows enough about the local wildlife to identify where an animal is likely to be and when it will be active;
- Has the patience and skill to find and watch an animal (with a pair of binoculars on hand); and
- Is lucky enough to interact with the animal in some way that makes the experience both special and memorable.
And without the artificial lure of feeding, wildlife encounters can become 'the real thing'—true wildlife interactions where the animal decides how close it will come.
Encountering wildlife without feeding
By far the best way to ensure you have the company of wildlife is to go to natural places like national parks and take up the challenge of encountering a wild animal on its own terms.
Even at home you can create your own wildlife habitat. Grow native plants that provide nectar-rich flowers, fruits and leaves that local wildlife will feed on. In time these plants will form part of a wildlife-friendly garden that provides patches of shelter and habitat for native birds, mammals, reptiles, frogs and invertebrates. Add a comfortable seat to watch from and you can start to enjoy meeting some of your wild neighbours in a wildlife-friendly way.