Garden bird feeding: Insights and prospects from a north-south comparison of this global urban phenomenon

Silas Reynolds, Josie Galbraith, Jennifer Smith, Darryl Jones

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Intentional feeding of wild birds in gardens or backyards is one of the most popular forms of human–wildlife interactions in the developed world, especially in urban environments. The scale and intensity of bird feeding are enormous with mainly birdseed consumed daily by a range of species. This represents a subsidy to natural diets of birds attracted to the feeders and typically involves novel dietary components. Yet, relatively little is known about how it influences the behavior and ecology of the species visiting feeders. In part, research has been hampered by logistical difficulties of working in urban areas but studies
have demonstrated powerful influences on behavior and phenology of avian breeding, the spread of disease, and the structure of avian communities. Here, we compare bird feeding between Northern and Southern Hemispheres as a means of exploring how similarities and differences in avian responses might inform knowledge of this global urban phenomenon. We start by tracing its origins to north-western Europe and how its expansion has occurred before considering how geographical differences in feeding practices and attitudes map onto bird feeding “on the ground.” We explore some of the major emerging themes of recent interest, including why citizens are motivated to
feed birds, whether birds become fully dependent on food supplements, the role of feeding in avian disease transmission, and how feeding changes urban bird communities. By proposing that scientists work in collaboration with the public providing food to birds, we pose key research questions that need to be answered urgently and suggest accompanying experimental approaches to do so. These approaches are essential if we are to improve our understanding of how bird feeding shapes the behavior, ecology, movements, and community structure of urban birds. Our hope is that through such citizen science we will be able to provide advice as to location-relevant practices that should maximize benefits to both urban biodiversity and human well-being, and
minimize potential adverse impacts. We demonstrate that bird feeding is important for urban biodiversity conservation, community engagement, and in establishing personal connections with nature and their associated benefits.
Original languageEnglish
Article number24
JournalFrontiers in Ecology and Evolution
Early online date28 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - 7 Apr 2017


  • source-sink dynamics
  • carry-over effects
  • citizen science
  • community structure
  • dependency
  • disease transmission
  • food supplements
  • human well-being


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