Feeding birds is a tradition I grew up with in the UK and for many years it was not something I ever considered could have a negative effect on my local birds.
In China, few people – especially in urban areas – have gardens, so feeding birds does not have the same place in everyday life. However, in recent years, primarily to serve the growing bird photographic community, feeding stations have been set up where ‘hard to see’ species are attracted to specific spots at which photographers can pay a daily fee for a prime seat. Some people argue this has had a positive impact on local communities and conservation as the birds are now seen as an economic asset and the incentive to hunt or convert habitat has been much reduced for fear of undermining what could be a sustainable source of income. However, are there negative aspects to this practice? And, if so, what is the balance?
To air these arguments, the article below has been written by Chengdu-based Sid Francis. In it, he sets out the pros and cons of feeding wild birds, drawing on scientific evidence, where available, and his own experiences. Sid and his colleagues have been working with the local community in Wolong, Sichuan, to set up a new hide targeting Golden Pheasants and other species and has faced some push-back from conservationists. To feed or not to feed is clearly not a straightforward question to answer.
Have a read of Sid’s article and let us know what you think..!
How the Koala Shows Us Feeding Wild Golden Pheasant Might be a Good Thing
An Opinion Piece on Feeding Wild Birds at Chinese Photography Hides By Sid Francis (contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
What can you do when an area, formerly rich in habitat and birds is degraded by farming practise and new cropping method? Our challenge, the hillside farmland at Wolong, a village located in the very heart of China’s largest Giant Panda Conservation area – the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, home to the largest concentration of wild Giant Pandas. Lying in a deep river valley, the steep hillsides were traditionally grazed by farm animals with cropping limited to kitchen gardens for local consumption. In the past, remote and difficult to reach, visitors were few, but new road and tunnels now mean quick and easy connection to the huge urban population of nearby Chengdu and the rest of Modern China. Times are changing fast at Wolong. Gone are the days when it was just goats, yak and vegetables to feed the family – today’s hillside terraces and pasture, lying just outside the panda reserve but also home to a rich array of local wildlife, are being cleared in an intensification of agriculture – areas of flatter land being planted up with cabbage, and the establishment of lucrative plum orchards, giving an easy to manage cash crop, being grown on steeper slopes. Extra prosperity for the locals but at what expense to the local ecology – especially one of the most sought after and iconic birds on the slopes, Golden Pheasant.
Birding in China, I had seen similar development in the Gaoligong area of Southern Yunnan – an impoverished highland backwater, on the Myanmar border, that suddenly found a new source of income through coffee bean farming and China’s increasing love for a daily caffeine perk. During my first visit to the village of Baihauling, in Gaoligong in 2009, I was alarmed by how much biodiverse habitat was being cleared and degraded after replacement with a coffee shrub monoculture. Fast forward to the new year of 2018, my first visit back to the area and it’s literally covered in both bird hides and an army of affluent Chinese bird photographers, rich retirees who devote much of their time to hunting China’s wildlife with a camera, and also starting to attract groups of foreign guests. Hotels were now themed around birding, evenings saw photographers vying to get a place at the best hides, a whole industry, one that had a potential to be a wildlife conserving influence, had sprung up in the area, because wildlife had been turned into a more valuable money-making resource than coffee.
Taking our cue from the Yunnan example, we concluded that establishing bird hides might be equally beneficial for the situation at Wolong. After all, the village – just an hour’s drive from the birdwatching mecca of Balang Mountain – is already the hotel base for many birdwatchers and photographers. There must be a demand for bird hides around the village, especially if Golden Pheasant were on offer.
Local villager and project-leader Wan Fugui, took on the task of finding a suitable site and soon the vision turned into a viable enterprise. Our first major leap forward was the discovery of a high hillside orchard adjacent to a farmhouse occupied by a remarkably enthusiastic 80-year-old lady and, equally importantly, a group of Golden Pheasants, where male birds regularly strutted around the edges of the orchard. Feeding with corn soon got these birds to be bolder, and the presence of other species around the feeders, Barred and Black-faced Laughingthrushes, Sooty Tits, Grey-headed Bullfinches, and Plain Mountain Finch were an added bonus. Further massive boosts to the project came in the form of donations, including that of building materials from a Chengdu construction company – and hey presto we had built a hide and were ready for action.
On paper it all sounds very impressive, but had we really considered whether this is good for our birds, or other species that are attracted to these big commercial hides? Shouldn’t it all be okay – after all people have been commonly feeding backyard birds for well over 50 years. Is there an ethical dilemma in running a bird photography hide? As we started to advertise our new hide we began to hear rumblings of discontent from parties that were very anti any kind of wildlife feeding and as a result I decided to explore the matter more deeply.
The ethics behind feeding is a grey area with no real empirical evidence to indicate whether good or bad. It’s one of those discussion subjects where strong viewpoints often rule over hard scientific fact. A basic argument against the feeding is that it isn’t natural. However, that notion can soon be dismissed, since, in today’s heavily man altered landscape, not much, if anything, is left natural. What we can be certain of on the pro-side is that species have been helped, and indeed saved from almost certain extinction, through feeding. While on the anti, there is strong evidence that certain species may have been badly reduced after contracting disease through using feeders and that the habituation of species, caused by feeding, can lead to them altering habits and aspects of ecology.
Let’s first take the cons of feedings. The most serious of these must be the spread of avian disease but we’ve also got to consider factors like –
- bringing birds into the open causes them to be more vulnerable to predation – our own hide has experienced visits from a large domestic cat, who seems to have an eye for our birds.
- creates an imbalanced and sometimes dangerous diet – certain common bird-feeds, like peanuts, might be dangerous if parent birds feed to young. We must be careful about what we feed our pheasants – especially commercial Chicken feeds which may contain undesirable anti-biotic or other chemical elements.
- enables certain unwanted species to flourish at the expense of intended recipients of feed – squirrels (alien Grey Squirrels in the UK) that dominate bird feeders are a good example. At our site, so far, only the cat has turned up as an unwanted species, but at Baihauling there was a constant war between the hide-keepers and the squirrels and tree shrews that came to raid the feed.
By careful feeding management and due caution these factors can be reduced – and pale into insignificance when compared to the spectre of serious disease and parasite transmission. Two well documented cases of disease transmission have been associated with garden bird feeders. One, in North America, that causes a blinding conjunctivitis eye disease, mainly affecting House Finches, and in Europe a deadly trichomonosis parasite that has been linked with a population decline of over 50% for Britian’s European Greenfinch and progressed to afflict other garden species. Both House Finch and Greenfinch are garden feeder species and the speed and scale of disease transmission has been associated with a dependence on urban feeding. Another commonality between the two is that both diseases are assumed to have jumped over from other species. The jump made by trichomonosis, which, before it affected Greenfinches was associated with doves and pigeons could also have been facilitated by feeding, since Wood Pigeons are a common sight on British bird tables. Nowadays advice on feeding gardens birds also comes with hygiene guidelines – good bird feeding practice includes disease control through regularly cleaning feeders.
When looking at the pro-side of feeding, it’s important to consider the problem of avian disease spread in a balanced way. Serious avian disease problems exist regardless of any human feeding activities, while presumptions regarding scale of transmission and whether feeders are the main or major instigators of disease jumping from one species to another have never been proven. West Nile disease, a mosquito borne pathogen, that has recently found its way to the American Continent, has been relentlessly killing millions of songbirds of many species. Although its emergence and spread has never been blamed on feeding, it has also been associated with urban bird populations. However, here studies have suggested that those species that can utilise feeder resources may fare better than species which don’t. Then in Australia we have Psittacine beak and feather disease, an ailment that affects parrots and passed on through viral contamination of nesting holes. There has also been evidence of the disease jumping species to Bee-eaters, a family so specialised in its feeding habits, that bird feeding could never be considered as a possible vector of cross-contamination.
Any British readers of this article will understand too well the dilemma of quickly jumping to a conclusion when trying to understand the dynamics of disease spread in the wild. One of the most contentious subjects in British wildlife politics is the mass culling of European Badger, the supposed species that is the major cause of bovine TB spreading to farm cattle. Here mass culling of Badgers, in some areas to almost extinction, have not led to any TB decrease in dairy herds, and goes to emphasise when linked with wild species, disease spread is complex and poorly understood, where what looks like the obvious might not be the real reason for a problem.
The Golden Pheasants we are feeding might not be a bird table species, but the factors that put urban songbirds at risk must also be threat factors at any feeding sight – especially like those in Yunnan that specialise in attracting smaller passerines. However, at Wolong, since pheasants, weak flying non-migratory birds that spend most of their time on the ground, the disease spread risk coming from attracting outside birds would seem to be low. But care is still needed in maintaining good hygiene levels around feeding sites, not allowing a build up of rotten corn and being vigilant over any birds that might show signs of ill health. Such precautions should be taken as standard practice for all feeding sites.
What we do know is that feeding must have been a major factor in saving certain bird species. We only have to look to two species here in China to see that – Brown-eared Pheasant, where remnant populations are kept from extinction by feeding at a temple in Shanxi province and the Crested Ibis of Shaanxi Province, which were rescued through feeding and breeding programs. We can also assume that supplementary feeding must be helpful for any species during periods of hard weather – that seems to be obvious at any feeding site where birds flock during periods of harsh winter weather. We also know that garden feeding in the UK, a survey found over 60% of household fed birds during winter, must be linked to growing urban bird populations, while populations on agricultural land are in steep decline. All three scenarios are excellent cases for the argument that feeding, despite the disease risk, is a boost for bird protection and conservation.
As a counter argument the con lobby has suggested that feeding can cause change in a species habits. During our discussions we even heard of worries that using feeding sites could cause birds to forget how to feed in ‘wild situations.’ Such arguments can easily be countered by noting that species which have been reintroduced into the wild from captive breeding programs have never had problems eventually to readapting to ‘natural’ feeding habits, while birds that use feeding sites, most only paying short visits, must also take wild feed. The Golden Pheasants at our feeders only spend minutes eating, indicating the corn we provide is a supplement rather than a complete diet. Maybe a more serious concern is that feeding might encourage migratory species to become resident, like over-wintering Blackcaps in the UK, which normally migrate, but can remain by using bird feeders as a vital source of winter feed. This argument however must be taken into context that birds are highly adaptive organisms, their strategies of survival must be linked with their ability to take advantage of favourable situations, which must have helped them overcome a global history of climatic and habitat change. We never need worry about interfering with any long-distant migratory instincts of our Golden Pheasants (they will migrate to lower level in harsh weather), but we do need to take into account their capacity to adapt to habitat change brought about by agricultural change. There must come a point when that change becomes so radical – more patches of scrub are removed to plant more plum trees – that without our intervention, which includes supplementing the loss in natural feed by our feeding, we lose the pheasant as a local species. We may change our pheasant’s habits to become more dependent on our feeding – even encouraging them to stay higher at a sure site of feeding during harsh weather rather than going lower to seek natural cover and feed – but at least we hang on to species rather than let it die out because those areas of natural habitat have been destroyed.
And those Koalas from the title line? Well, we also know that one of the best defences for a species against annihilation by disease is a large population and a deep genetic pool, where resistant individuals survive, and an immunity is eventually established. This case is supported by Koalas – recent DNA work has shown most Koala populations in the southern Australian state of Victoria to have a very low genetic diversity, and there is concern that this may lead to less ability for these populations to adapt to environmental challenges such as a deadly or debilitating disease epidemic. Another Australian marsupial, the Tasmanian Devil is currently suffering this fate. Reduced genetic diversity has allowed the development of a contagious facial cancer which has decimated the species. For koalas, there is concern that low genetic diversity could equate to low levels of resistance to diseases such as diseases such as Chlamydia and Koala Retrovirus (KoRV) .
In the avian world there large genetic pools are known to boost resilience and recovery. When West Nile disease hit the US population of Red-eyed Vireo, during the first year there was a 29% population decline –which assumes a death toll of 37 million birds. But that was out of a population of 130 and during the following years the numbers recovered. One could suppose this trend is influenced by a species that possesses a rich and diverse genetic pool and resultant immunity, which is obviously something more likely to occur within a common species rather than a rare one.
Using that argument, we can debate the case for feeding – especially in areas like our Golden Pheasant hide, where habitat is being destroyed and birds are being pushed out – that conservation aspects are strong enough to trump the fear of an eventual case of bird disease, that may arrive anyway regardless of any feeding activity we may be carrying out. It’s surely a case of what’s happening versus what might happen. We know that in our project area the economics of plum farming will always out-trump any conservation crusade that hopefully relies on goodwill rather than pragmatic reason to preserve a bird or animal species that may eventually, in the eyes of the local, be seen as burden rather than a benefit. If that same bird or animal is reconfigured as an economic resource, then suddenly the tables are turned – which has indeed been the case at our hide in Wolong. We’re also confident that our feeding, if successful will be a double-edged sword when it comes to a conservation commitment. On the one hand giving a reason for the local farmers to maintain a large healthy Golden Pheasant population, with obvious benefits being related to both protection and saving habitat, while the hobby of bird watching and photography will be encouraged and nurtured, with future demand of more of the same and an increase in hides and other related wildlife promoting enterprises.
To feed or not to feed – well in our case I think we’re on the right track with feeding.
The above article should be regarded as personal opinion, based on internet research and experience of visiting various hides, rather than any deep scientific study. Because of my own interest and commitments to the Wolong hide project it may come over as biased towards pro-hide/pro feeding, but throughout I’ve tried to use balanced argument. Much of the evidence of regarding the impact of feeding is found in the following article –
Reynolds, Galbraith, Smith and Jones – Garden Bird Feeding: Insights and Prospects from a North-South Comparison of This Global Urban Phenomenon – Front. Ecol. Evol., 07 April 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fevo.2017.00024
An article that deals with public photographic hides, their purpose and that touches on feeding can be found here:
Richie – A Guide to Wildlife Viewing and Photography Blinds, Creating Facilities To Connect People With Nature; – https://donnallong.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/us-viewing-blinds-publication-low-res.pdf
Although very little is written about feeding, this article shows a far more cautious approach to the subject (see page 28). However, feeding is mainly discussed in terms of general wildlife feeding and, being focused on North American experience, is influenced by problems faced in attracting larger mammals, particularly bears, to feeding sites.
Title image: a male Golden Pheasant at Wolong, Sichuan.