Wildlife in suburban Australia, including your own backyard
People from many big cities elsewhere may seldom get a chance to experience wildlife directly, but Australians are lucky. Visitors from overseas are often amazed at the colourful birds such as rainbow lorikeets so common in many suburbs and taken for granted by many Aussies, lamenting “we only have brown or grey ones back home.” They also comment on our large ones (e.g. swans, ibis, brush turkeys) or the playful galahs and corellas.
In a country where so many mammals have become extinct in the past couple of centuries most suburbs also harbour at least one and often two species of possum, some even boasting koalas or wallabies. There are even sea lions in one outer Perth suburb, and kangaroos in another. Greater Brisbane is home to about fifty species of lizard, and all cities have their share of lizards and frogs.
Whatever city or town you may live in, there will be wildlife, and many residents find delight and fascination in these, and want to attract as many species as possible into their own gardens. Some species are easy to entice but others are more challenging. We also need to be careful how we go about it. We don’t want to cause any health problems by offering the wrong foods or allowing their feeding or drinking areas to become contaminated. We also don’t want to cause population explosions of large, aggressive species that compete against or prey upon some of the smaller, more vulnerable species. Nor do we want to attract animals into places that could be dangerous for them.
So what can we do to entice birds and other wildlife to spend a bit of time around our homes? The most common ways are providing food, water and shelter. The food may be in the form of handouts, or trees and other plants that provide edible foliage, nectar, pollen, fruit, sap or gum, or are good for attracting insects that are then eaten by birds, small mammals, lizards and frogs. Likewise, shelter may be in the form of trees, low plants, logs or artificial structures such as nesting boxes or “bee hotels” (tubes of wood or bamboo bound together for non-colonial native bees).
Bird gardens to attract and feed native birds
There has probably been more publicity against the feeding of birds and other wildlife in Australia than any other country, and it can indeed cause problems: populations of aggressive or predatory species growing at the expense of others, some large and aggressive species becoming a nuisance or even dangerous to humans, spread of disease, malnourishment through inappropriate foods, possible dependency on humans causing problems when foods cease to be offered, changes in behaviour leading to the wildlife being less” wild”, and some disruption of ecological roles such as seed dispersal. Yet feeding of wildlife, especially birds, in the suburbs, remains a common and popular activity in Australia. Feeding animals in wilderness areas is probably never a good idea unless a temporary helping hand is needed after severe drought or fire, but in the highly altered landscapes of suburbia the ecosystems have been vastly altered already, which is one reason suburbanites feel they want to ''give something back.” If done with due care it can continue to give pleasure to the birds and those who feed them without causing apparent harm. Two excellent recent books by Darryl Jones - “The Birds At My Table: Why we feed wild birds and why it matters” and “Feeding the Birds at Your Table: A guide for Australia” cover this topic in some depth, so I’ll just mention a few aspects that are common concerns.
What not to feed wildlife
Bread is commonly thrown to birds in backyards, public parks and suburban waterways. If eaten dry it can swell in the throat when the bird has a drink, causing choking, it can fill the stomach without providing essential nutrients, and if some is left over on the ground or in the water it can spread disease between the birds (and other animals). Sunflower seeds are popular with rosellas and cockatoos but are too oily to form the bulk of their diet (a bit like chocolates for us), so if offered at all they should form a minor part of a seed mix. Lorikeets will eat some seed but they are unusual amongst parrots in that their main diet is nectar and pollen, and the special “bumpy” texture of their tongues, essential for collecting these foods from flowers, can be seriously damaged by eating too much seed. If currawongs are regularly fed they may increase in number or stay for winter in places they normally migrate from seasonally, which is bad news for smaller species whose nestlings they often prey on. If birds are fed too much, they may not seek out enough of their natural foods that supply necessary nutrients, so it is best to give small snacks rather than whole meals. The species of birds that have been introduced to Australia are all nice birds but conservation-wise it is best to give our native birds a competitive advantage. The introduced species are still living in their countries of origin, and other countries they have been introduced to, whereas most of our birds are either unique to Australia or our country is an important part of their migration route.
Possums, especially ringtails, are primarily leaf-eaters, so fruit offered should be minimal, even for the relatively omnivorous species such as brushtails, and bread should be avoided as for birds. Finally, it is very important to keep your feeding and watering stations clean, to avoid transmission of disease. You may not see sick birds but this can simply mean the sick ones have not returned to your garden. Refer to Darryl’s book for a lot more information.
Backyard habitat - Plants and trees for wildlife
A less problematic way of attracting birds, as well as possums, lizards, frogs, butterflies and native bees, is to landscape your garden with native plants. There are many, such as banksias, grevilleas and bottlebrush, as well as eucalypts in gardens large enough for them, that provide nectar for honeyeaters, silvereyes, lorikeets, rosellas, sugar gliders, squirrel gliders, bats, native bees and butterflies. One problem with providing an abundance of nectar in combination with an expanse of lawn is that this can lead to an abundance of noisy miners. These are native honeyeaters, not to be confused with the common (or Indian) mynah, which is an introduced member of the starling family, but their populations have increased as we provide more habitat with eucalypts and short grass. The problem with noisy miners is that, like all honeyeaters, they tend to be aggressive towards other birds and they eat both nectar and insects, but are they larger than the average honeyeater, and unlike other honeyeaters they spend a lot of time foraging on the ground for insects amongst short grass, they are residential rather than nomadic, and they breed in large colonies of related individuals, very nicely helping to feed each others’ nestlings while chasing away all other species they can intimidate, including other honeyeaters, fairy-wrens, fantails, finches, robins and native thrushes. It is thus best wherever possible to provide thickets of low shrubs instead of large lawns, to provide shelter for smaller birds and encourage the miners to mostly go elsewhere.
When choosing plants for birds and other wildlife, remember that some birds and mammals also eat native fruits such as figs, quandongs, native tamarind (not really a tamarind, just tastes a bit like it) and lily-pillies. Native shrubs also provide food and shelter for the insects which are eaten by many of our native birds as well as antechinus, lizards and frogs. Missing from many suburbs are mature eucalypts with hollow limbs for hole nesting parrots, owls, kingfishers, possums, gliders, small insectivorous bats and native bees. There is a variety of nesting boxes on the market to suit different species, and information on websites for building your own.
Ponds are good for frogs of course, and also for birds and lizards to drink at in dry weather. Frogs are generally smaller and more nimble than the introduced cane toad, so lots of low dense plants such as Lomandra or flax lilies (Dianella) or ground-hugging grevilleas can allow froggy access while making things more difficult for the toads. If you see large tadpoles, please don’t destroy them thinking they are “toadpoles.” Toad tadpoles actually metamorphose when quite tiny, so any large tadpoles will be green treefrog, great barred frog or something else native. Toad tadpoles are tiny, black on top with dark bellies, pointy-nosed and usually very numerous.
Consider also planting species that are the food plants for caterpillars of our many butterflies, and of course let them eat the leaves (no insecticides!). There are several good butterfly books and websites detailing food plants for the caterpillar stage. Nectar-producing plants and bowls of water will assist the adult butterflies.
Take care not to increase danger to wildlife
One thing we don’t want to attract wildlife to is increased danger. Nectar-rich plants or other wildlife attractants next to busy roads can lead to increased roadkill. The same applies to barb wire, which unfortunately ensnares many birds, gliders and other wildlife. If you or your neighbour has a cat or two, food or water needs to be provided where cats can’t easily reach, such as hanging baskets or raised fountains or tables. If the cats are yours you may like to erect an outdoor enclosure, some of which are quite inexpensive and can provide stimulating 3D fun for your pets. Large glass windows and glass doors can be a hazard as birds sometimes fly into them. Using attractive transfers or dangling bits of wire or paper in front of the glass can warn the birds before they make contact.
Neighbours - be considerate
Some neighbours can be rather fussy and make complaints about your wildlife garden, although frogs at night or a dawn chorus of birds seem preferable to so many other suburban noises such as screeching of brakes, revving of engines, loud squabbles by neighbours and deafening music blasted through someone’s window. Some may have legitimate concerns. It may be best to avoid attracting crows or cockatoos if your next door neighbour is growing a crop of sweetcorn in the backyard, encouraging brush turkeys that could delight in building nests by raking up their pine chips, or growing a tree next to the boundary fence that will drops lots of leaves or seedpods on their lawn. Possums sometimes enter the space between ceiling and roof, which can be annoying, but a good handyman should be able to seal off the entry points, and you can provide nesting boxes as an alternative for the possums. Fruit and vegetables can be protected by wildlife-friendly netting (not the sort that can entangle them, and not black) and by deterrent substances or electronic devices available at hardware stores.
If you find an injured, ill or orphaned bird or possum, you can call 1300 ANIMAL (RSPCA), or your local wildlife rescue group. If able to easily catch it, it is usually best to keep it in a warm, dark box with ventilation until further instruction. Do not attempt to handle bats, some of which carry the rabies-like lyssa virus unless you have some experience and have been vaccinated against rabies.
Resources and ways to contribute to protecting wildlife
Seeing animals in your own backyard is a great opportunity to learn about our country’s wildlife, and there are nowadays many good books, websites and apps to help you identify what you see, and to learn about their ecology and their behaviour. You can also contribute to citizen science via such apps as iNaturalist (Global), iNaturalist (Australia), Atlas of Living Australia, eBird or FrogId. You may even like to join the Australian Citizen Science Association.
Finally, if you enjoy seeing wildlife in your suburb and you are concerned about the dwindling numbers of many of our native species, encourage your local and state governments to consider wildlife in all town planning and road construction plans. Halving an area of native bushland will do more than halve the habitat for many species, as the newly-created edge areas will often be quickly occupied by noisy miners and other birds such as kookaburras, crows, currawongs and butcherbirds that compete with, or worse still prey upon, smaller birds. Also some species need a minimum home range size to ensure enough resources throughout the year. Animals need to move to seek mates, new territories and new sources of food in lean times, and to avoid in-breeding. Strong-flying birds may have no trouble but small, weak-flying birds that don’t like traveling through open areas can find it difficult. So can non-flying animals such as lizards and koalas, which become very vulnerable to traffic collisions and dog attack while attempting to travel. It is useful to remind politicians, developers and town-planners that restoring native vegetation between habitat fragments and possum bridges over roads can help the wildlife we like to live in, that different species can require different kinds of wildlife corridors, and that overpasses and underpasses built into the original plans for a new road are far less expensive than trying to provide them after the road is completed. With intelligent and far-sighted planning, humans and wildlife can live together.
My own research related to the above includes:
• Green, R. J., Catterall, C. P. and Jones, D. N. 1988. Foraging and other behaviour of birds in
subtropical and temperate suburban habitats. Emu 89: 216-222
• Green, R. J., 1986. Native and exotic birds in the suburban habitat. In H. A. Ford and D.C. Paton
(eds) The Dynamic Partnership: Birds and Plants in Southern Australia. S. A. Government Printers
• Green, R. J. 1984. Native and exotic birds in a suburban habitat. Australian Wildlife Research
• Catterall, C. P., Green, R. J., and Jones, D. N. 1989. The occurrence of birds in relation to plants in a
subtropical city. Australian Wildlife Research 16:289-305
• Catterall, C. P., Green, R. J., and Jones, D. N. 1991. Habitat use by birds across a forest suburb
interface in Brisbane: implications for corridors. In (eds. D.A. Saunders and R. J. Hobbs) Nature
Conservation 2: the Role of Corridors. Surrey Beatty and Sons, Sydney
Main Photo Credit - Scarlet Honeyeater - Pixabay