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Is it really so wrong to care for an introduced bird species?

The birds commonly seen in urban backyards of Australia are increasingly introduced species like this house sparrow, sharing a birdbath with a native red-browed finch. Wanda Optland

Is it really so wrong to care for an introduced bird species?

While running the Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study, I have been surveying people on whether they try to discourage undesirable birds from entering their gardens.

For the survey, I used the term “undesirable birds” for introduced species such as spotted doves or house sparrows. Judging by the volume of complaints I received, I may have misjudged this definition – introduced does not necessarily mean “undesirable”!

I was surprised to discover how much people appreciate the spotted doves, house sparrows, blackbirds and other “undesirables” that hang around their gardens. People care about these birds, even though ecologists officially consider them pests.

Two house sparrows can be seen here enjoying a bath among native New Holland honeyeaters. Wanda Optland

This raises an interesting question. Introduced birds are often considered to be pests, but does that necessarily mean we shouldn’t interact with or enjoy them at all?

House sparrows, spotted doves and Indian mynas dominate many urban areas, are dependent on us to survive, and appear to cause little damage to native species. There is very little peer-reviewed evidence of the environmental impact of introduced birds on other species. Without us and our urban development, one wonders how common they would be.

In an increasingly urbanised world, many birds are having to adapt to a new habitat: the urban jungle. I live in a rented house in inner Melbourne, and in my very small garden I have two spotted doves and a family of house sparrows. I would love to have some small native birds visit me, but it’s almost certainly not going to happen because of where I live.

Many bird lovers are so concerned with encouraging native species that they feel guilty about enjoying the only birds that do visit. But should we care any less about them because they are introduced species? After all, it’s not as if my garden is getting much love from the natives – the local magpie ignores my entreaties, and the wattlebirds are too busy arguing over the bottlebrush trees that line our street. In their absence, why shouldn’t I form a bond with Mr and Mrs Spotted Dove who have been with me for three years?

A spotted dove. Wanda Optland

Friendly feeders

It seems I am not the only one who feels this way. My preliminary survey results suggest that many people get pleasure from helping wild birds, whether by providing food, water or somewhere for them to live. As many species are relatively long-lived, the same birds visit time and again, and some people even consider them part of their household.

Some respondents said they find that birds alleviate anxiety and depression, or as one of my citizen scientists put it:

I try to feed birds responsibly because it lifts my depression. Connects me to nature. Makes me happy.

Another told me:

The emotional feeling watching the birds is better than any pill.

For many respondents, the relationship with individual birds seems to matter more than whether or not they are a native species. As another respondent told me:

I feel that I have a relationship with the birds that come to my garden. Some of them sit on the patio and wait for me.

A spotted dove seen on the left shares a cool spot in the backyard with a native double-barred finch. Wanda Optland

I can relate. My two spotted doves are always in my garden, and will follow me around until I give them some seeds. They provide great entertainment for my two indoor cats who watch through the flyscreen. I feel connected to them, despite any lingering guilt about encouraging non-native species.

Native to where?

As with most things in life, this issue is far from black and white anyway. With the possible exception of a magpie’s familiar warbling song, what could be more Aussie than the sound of laughing kookaburras? But did you know that they are non-native to Western Australia and Tasmania? It’s a similar story for rainbow lorikeets, whose colourful plumage is a common sight in and around Perth despite them being non-native there.

What about less lovable species, such as Indian mynas, also called common mynas, and rock doves, also known as feral pigeons or (rather less kindly) “flying rats”?

An introduced bird species, Indian mynas are commonly seen in urban gardens of eastern Australia. Wanda Optland

Indian mynas do particularly well in many urban areas such as Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. This is partly because of the prevalence of large gumtrees with little or no understorey, which reflect very closely their natural habitat. Could it be that their success is largely down to us?

Rock doves also get a very bad rap, despite being descended from war pigeons that were credited with saving hundreds of human lives. Think about that the next time one gives you the eye while you eat your lunch in the city!

So should we feel guilty for loving introduced birds? If caring for birds is good for our mental health, then perhaps the answer is no, even though we want to see native species thrive wherever possible. Do you provide food or water for introduced birds? I would love to see your comments.

Often we have little choice anyway. Sometimes, because of where we live, introduced birds are the only ones who care to interact with us. As much as I would love to see an Australian king parrot visit my little Melbourne backyard, I will probably have to be content with just my spotted doves and house sparrows for company.