By Rebecca Wheatley, 20th January 1:00 PM
Over the past five months, huge areas of Australia have been devastated by fire and drought. As of writing, over 10 million hectares of land have burned since September and it is estimated that well over a billion wild animals have perished (not including fish, frogs, bats or invertebrates). Animal hospitals are full to bursting with injured and displaced wildlife, and carrots and sweet potato have been dropped in some burned areas to get some food to animals that have nothing left. Provisioning for affected wildlife during this catastrophe is both positive and necessary.
But what about provisioning for wildlife outside of times of extreme crisis? Habitat loss is the number one threat to species in Australia and many animals are affected by this even under normal conditions, particularly in urban areas. Climate change means we are experiencing warmer average temperatures and lower annual rainfall more and more frequently. Under these stressful but no longer unusual conditions, many people (including yours truly) want to help wildlife in their local area. But how can we do this in a responsible way that doesn’t cause more harm than good? I’ve been doing some research on this to use in my own life, and I thought I’d share what I’ve learned.
The first thing I learned was there are multiple kinds of provisioning that are carried out in urban, rural, and wild areas, generally providing some combination of food, water, and shelter. The second thing I learned was that, no matter how innocuous the provisioning you do appears at first glance, there can be unintended negative consequences if it isn’t carried out thoughtfully and responsibly. I will discuss four broad types of provisioning (with a totally biased bent toward fauna rather than flora), their potential pitfalls and ways to negotiate them. However, it is important to remember that the biggest and most impactful things we can do to help our wildlife – animals, plants, fungi, all of it – is to support and engage in climate action and prevent further habitat clearing.
One of the best ways to support local wildlife is to provide and support natural habitats. This can be done by leaving pre-existing vegetation in place or by planting native gardens. For example, in a large garden and where it is safe to do so, large or dead old trees or fallen wood can be left in place to provide habitat for larger animals like marsupials and hollow-using birds, but also for smaller creatures like lizards and insects.
Many people also plant native gardens to support insects and larger animals. A diverse garden with a multi-layered structure is important for providing shelters, homes, and food for an array of different creatures. For instance, rather than open gardens with only showy, nectar-heavy flowering species like grevillea and eucalypts (which there is some evidence can result in communities dominated by aggressive honeyeaters like Noisy Miners), a variety of native plants that form some dense thickets can cater to other birds and smaller animals as well. Smaller, more subtle flowers can also be useful for encouraging native pollinators. Many online guides are available for helping to create a native garden that caters for a range of different species (e.g. this one from Birds In Backyards).
When it isn’t possible to have natural hollows for animals (like dead trees), an alternative is to put up structures like nest boxes and insect “hotels”. However, as with all the provisioning options I will discuss, some pre-thought is required.
While putting up nest boxes in urban areas seems like an activity that could only have positive impacts, long-term monitoring research has found that the installation of bat boxes in parks in Melbourne may have led to the dominance of a single bat species. In fact, nest box use is often dominated by particular species in urban areas (e.g. possums) – which can be either a good or a bad thing, depending on what you are trying to achieve.
Before you put up any boxes, it is necessary to think about the species you aim to encourage. Different types of nest box will allow access for different species, varying in size, entry hole dimensions, and entry platform type. Examples of some different types of nest boxes can be found on the Birds In Backyards website, which has a range of free nest box plans for some of the less common Australian urban birds. Once you’ve decided on a box, it’s important to choose a secure, quiet location to place it which will be out of reach of predators while still being accessible to the animals the box is designed for.
My own nest boxes have frequently been occupied by unintended species: ants. This isn’t necessarily a problem if the ants are native to the area and are not a pest. However, nest boxes can also be occupied by invasive species like Common Myna, Blackbird, Starlings, and European wasps. There are methods of reducing the likelihood that this can happen, including using an appropriately sized entrance hole, installing features like baffles at the front of the box, and checking occupancy regularly.
Providing fresh, clean water for wildlife can save lives during heat waves and drought. However, there are a few important things to consider when putting out a water source.
First, you want to put out a water source that is suitable for the sort of animals you are provisioning. Pedestal or elevated baths can be useful for birds because it keeps them out of easy reach of cats. On the other hand, water bowls on the ground are more useful for species like Koala, echidnas, snakes, and larger lizards. Any water source should be placed in a sheltered location, out of the way of people and pets.
Second, water sources must be refilled regularly and kept clean. Parasites and diseases can be transmitted between animals in dirty water baths, so cleaning is essential. Mosquitos can breed in stagnant water, so water must be replaced at regular intervals.
Finally, small animals like skinks and insects can drown in shallow water. Adding a few sticks or rocks will allow them to crawl out if they fall in.
Feeding animals is by far the most controversial type of wildlife provisioning because it can have pretty awful consequences if done poorly. Most animals have not evolved to cope with human foods, and animals that are regularly fed human food can become obese, nutrient deficient, and sick. Feeding macropods such as wallabies and kangaroos can result in a condition called lumpy jaw which prevents feeding and eventually results in death. Similarly, birds fed an artificially high-carbohydrate, high-protein diet are more likely to develop deformities such as angel wing.
Even if animals are given appropriate foods, there are still serious potential negative consequences just in the act of feeding. Regularly fed animals can become dependent on artificial food sources and/or exhibit increased aggression towards other animals and humans. In extreme cases, habituated and aggressive wild animals are euthanised. Feeding animals can also result in more aggressive species becoming dominant in the community, as these species are more likely to gain access to artificial food sources and exclude shyer, less aggressive species.
These various side-effects mean that feeding animals must be approached very carefully if it is to be done at all. The safest way to feed wild animals is by filling your garden with natural resources for them and letting them feed themselves. You can plant suitable native vegetation for granivores, frugivores, and nectivores, and use mulch and leaf litter to provide habitat for invertebrates and lizards (to support carnivorous birds, small mammals, reptiles, and frogs).
Recently a lot of research has come out on the pros and cons of feeding birds in Australia. I will not cover this information as it is specific to birds, but if you are keen to know more, some great resources from an expert are: 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 by Professor Darryl Jones.
In addition to the increased stressors affecting our wildlife, it is widely accepted that humans are facing an “extinction of experience” of nature. Essentially, humans living in increasingly developed and urbanised environments rarely experience natural surroundings and phenomenon. The connection and relationship we develop with wildlife through various forms of provisioning can be valuable, not only for the animals, but for us as well. However, we need to be careful to ensure we aren’t harming the animals we are aiming to help, by doing our research and behaving in a thoughtful, considered manner.
All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members.