Feeding garden birds - should we do it?

Feeding garden birds - should we do it?

What do the experts say?

Aotearoa’s native birds are a part of our national identity. Seeing them prosper and return to urban areas can be a source of great joy – which is why so many of us like to provide them with nutritious food in our backyards. While some experts adhere to a school of thought that discourages feeding birds, seeing it as a disruption of nature’s course, others disagree, taking the view that our natives need a helping hand. So who’s right?

The more they feed, the more they breed

This is Tahu Mackenzie’s mantra. An educator at Orokonui Wildlife Sanctuary near Dunedin and a veritable bird expert, Tahu encourages backyard feeding to boost the numbers of natives all over the motu. She sees feeding as a way to balance the environmental changes we have caused.

However, like most experts, she stresses the point that feeding must be done right. This means keeping feeders clean and providing good, nutritious food that native birds need and love.

The huge loss of natural habitat due to forest clearing, as well as pollution and changing weather patterns, has caused a steep decline in our native species numbers. Tahu believes that if done correctly, supporting the birds with food is the right thing to do.

However, like most experts, she stresses the point that feeding must be done right. This means keeping feeders clean and providing good, nutritious food that native birds need and love. Feeders must also be positioned where predators can’t reach them - or we could actually put bird visitors in danger. Tahu knows this better than anyone as a co-designer of the Peka Peka feeder. Through her research she helped to develop an award-winning cat-proof bird feeder that now safely nourishes birds all over the country.

Supporting Tahu's stance is a 2022 study from the University of Auckland that showed feeding sugar water likely benefits native birds over winter when nectar is scarce and it improves their chances of a successful breeding season come spring.

Planting before feeding?

Zealandia Ecosanctuary in Wellington has been doing amazing work to help bring native bird species back to the capital since the 1990s. A world-first, the sanctuary is securely contained with a predator-excluding fence, allowing the native bush and birds to prosper within.

While Zealandia does feed the birds within the sanctuary in order to encourage them to stay within its safe zone, they voice a preference for the backyard provision of water and native, bird-friendly trees and shrubs over feeding. Their perspective is that while feeding is often done with good intentions, it can cause problems for birds. Many of these issues are caused by feeding the wrong foods - such as bread - as well as by too many birds congregating together at a feeder, causing the spread of disease.

Indeed, the best thing we can do to encourage our precious native birds to prosper is to rewild our gardens and green spaces with plenty of native trees and shrubs, such as kōwhai, pūriri and kohekohe. Leaving leaf litter to accumulate for bug habitats is another great way to provide food for our native birds.

However, for so many of us living in urban areas – where much of the land has been cleared for housing and sections are becoming smaller in size – our planting endeavours are still a work in progress. While our plants grow, providing good quality food for our native birds, especially in winter when naturally occuring seeds and berries might be scarce, is a great back up choice. 

How to feed healthy birds

Both Orokonui Wildlife Sanctuary and Zealandia Ecosanctuary agree that if you are going to feed birds, the most important point is to keep your feeders clean and fresh. Don’t leave food to rot or nectar water to get rancid or sticky, as this can cause illness. Having several bird feeders for different bird types prevents disease from spreading between species. 

Never feed bread or scraps, especially not on the ground, as this can encourage predators to lurk. In 2015, Auckland PHD student Josie Galbraith studied bird numbers in yards around Auckland and found that those who fed bread actually had less natives visiting, but more introduced species. She hypothesised that the natives were crowded out by the large number of sparrows, doves and ducks – and decided to stay away.

To make sure we only feed those who need it, position the feeder in a place where predators and scavengers can’t get to it, and feed only good nutritious seeds, grains and fruit. A safe bird feeder such as the Predator Free NZ-endorsed Peka Peka or the Nectar Nourisher, designed with native nectar-sippers in mind, are great options for those who don’t have a good-sized tree for hanging feeders.

If you’re feeding sugar water or nectar for tūī and korimako, ensure the feeder is washed with warm, soapy water and the feed changed every day. Similarly, seed feeders should be washed before being topped up.


Bird baths and water sources are also a much-appreciated feature in your garden where birds are concerned – and not just in the summer. Birds need to groom their feathers daily and also need reliable access to clean water throughout the year. Cut up fruit can be an additional delicious treat for our natives, especially loved by waxeyes. Good for using up fruit that can’t be eaten too!

Feeding the birds can boost environmentalism

One great bonus to backyard bird feeding is that it tends to give us humans a boost of green-thinking. Once you have native birds visiting your garden, you may find yourself reconsidering everyday choices that affect our natural surroundings. Perhaps you will lend a hand tree-planting in your nearby green space or decide to rewild part of your garden as a bonus for your visitors. Perhaps you will take a stricter approach to your purchases or look more closely at environmental policy decisions in your neighbourhood.

No matter what actions you take, the birds will be sure to thank you for it!


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