Summary For 20 years after building our hilltop home, we carefully refrained from feeding the wildlife that shared their rainforest territory with us. The accepted wisdom warned that doing so would make the wild creatures dependent on handouts. They would lose their skills at finding food for themselves and, if we should stop providing for them, they would starve.
Keywords wildlife, human intervention, Kookaburras, ecology, domestic cats
Title Feeding The Wildlife – Should We Do It?
For 20 years after building our hilltop home, we carefully refrained from feeding the wildlife that shared their rainforest territory with us. The accepted wisdom warned that doing so would make the wild creatures dependent on handouts. They would lose their skills at finding food for themselves and, if we should stop providing for them, they would starve.
That is a bit like saying that if all the fast food take-away shops should close, the human population would starve, knowing no alternative ways of finding sustenance. Still, we suggested The Experts knew best and so we followed their advice – until a hard dought stress, three years ago. Years of abundance had encouraged our local Kookaburra family to breed to the maximum. Now the parents, and their two assistants from the previous season, faced raising four new offspring in a time of scarcity.
Note: Kookaburras practice a 'nursemaid' system of caring for the young. Two of the offspring from the previous season remain to help raise the new nestlings, while any surplus offspring are relentlessly chased off to find new territory for themselves. This co-operational strategy, though rare elsewhere on the planet, is common to many species of birds native to Australia.
So, my Bloke decided our local lot needed a bit of a helping hand. Buying blade steak in bulk from the butcher, he cut it into long 'grub-size' strips. Each meal portion was wrapped in plastic film and deep frozen, then thawed in the microwave every afternoon when the birds arrived. They soon learned the Bloke's schedule and by 4:30 pm would have lined up along a tree branch overlooking the deck where he feeds them. Always, one bird would be missing from the line-up. I figured this was a lookout, because as the Bloke's car entered the drive, the tardy one would join the group in the tree, setting off a raucous cackle of greeting from them all. Perhaps it was just their way of saying: 'Hey, hurry up with the dinner!'
In the early days, we would spread the meat on the brick paving around the swimming pool, sometimes throwing pieces to watch with admiration as the birds deftly put them in mid-air. Every piece was firmly held in their great, blade-like beaks and thoroughly bashed against the ground in their natural custom, before being swallowed. All this noisy activity attracted the attention of our black cat, who consulted on watching the afternoon entertainment from a ring-side seat only a few feet away. He never made any move to harass the birds. In any case, with wings for a quick getaway and fully armed with those formidable beaks, they made a target he was not keen to engage.
For their part, the birds grow so disdainful that they would perch in the rafters right above the cat as he sunned himself on the deck in the mornings. With feline dignity, he would certainly stretch, then turn his back to them. Occasionally, the birds cave up the game and went back to taking their morning baths in the pool with barely a glance at the cat. After a long and happy life, having been rescued from misery as an abandoned city stray, our cat companions died this year. Now the Kookaburras, and 29 other species of native and immigrant birds, have our backyard to themselves.
The juvenile birds remain reasonably wary of us humans at feeding time, but the parent birds will take meat from our fingers. This practice was initiated by the old Mama bird, who is a very outgoing character and always first down for a feed. She will even ignore meat laid out on the sawhorse 'perches' my Bloke set up, to take her servings straight from his hand.
Note: How do you tell the girls from the boys? Well, these species looks similar to the Laughing and Blue-winged Kookaburras, except for the beak coloration and a distinct gender marker: As the birds spread their wings and fly away from you, you will see a patch of blue feathers at the base of The male bird's tail.
And have our Kookaburras fallen into feckless ways since we began providing this free bounty? Not a bit of it! Here are a few illustrations to prove that point: while waiting for their afternoon steaks, one after another of the birds will swoop down to skewer a fat grub amongst the grasses. They never gorge on the meat, but fly back to the trees when they have had what my grandmother used to call 'an elegant adequacy,' leaving us to dispose of the surplus.
One day The Bloke was late coming home and a male flew away from the tree, seemingly too hungry to wait. When he returned, he married a struggling baby Mynah bird in his beak. For some minutes, he tossed and re-titled the nestling, systematically crushing its bones, then swallowed it whole, head first. One year, our swimming pool needed re-lining and the emptied space, warmed by the morning sun, proved irresistible to the local population of lizards and skinks. They made a tasty feast for the Kookaburras, which cleaned up a swag of them each day. One casualty caused me personal grief.
This was a skink of gigantic size that for many years had patrolled a territory around my studio. It had filled me from my work one day, when I heard unusual splashing noises and found the poor critter in the pool. All its efforts to climb out were futile and the cold water soon rendered it almost comatose. With the help of a plastic leaf scoop, I finally managed to land it on the deck, where it sagged until the sunshine warmed it. One startled look at me, and it was off into the bushes. As the Kookaburras reduced the smaller lizards lounging in the emptied pool, the huge skink had to range further afield for this favorite item of its diet and in an incautious moment of exposure, the big birds had him for breakfast.
I think it is clear that our 'interference' in the daily life of the local Kookaburras has done them no harm. They are resourceful creatures and while they might be briefly disappointed if we stopped our largesse, they do not really need us. It is we who would deeply miss our daily communion with these wild but friendly fellow creatures. © Dorothy Gauvin