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Birds in Baths

Birds in Baths

Monday, April 18, 2016

Citizen science, even though a very old concept, has gained a lot of traction lately as a way to engage people with science to aid conservation. By including citizen scientists in solving conservation issues we are stronger together and the Bathing Birds study is a perfect example of this. 

Despite bird baths being a common addition to any wildlife-friendly garden, until now we knew nothing about the birds using them. This is especially important in a very dry continent like Australia, where artificial water resources such as bird baths can be very important for birds, however until now nobody has looked at this aspect of human-wildlife interactions. 

How people interact with birds in their back garden, be it planting native plants or providing food and/or water, can have an impact on what type of birds visit. A recent study by Dr Cleary and her team has shown that where you live, in terms of bioregion, has a very important impact on the bird assemblage that is there in the first place to visit your garden.

The Bathing Birds study, investigating what birds are visiting bird baths, would not have been possible without the help of 1000s of citizen scientists that gave an otherwise impossible view of the nexus between people and birds in private gardens. 

The Bathing Birds study revealed that native birds (Noisy Miners and Rainbow Lorikeets) were more partial to the bird baths of our northern, warmer states, South
East Queensland and the Sydney Basin, while the cooler climates of southern Australia (mainly Victoria), attracted a greater share of introduced birds such as Common Blackbirds and House Sparrows.

We know that we do have introduced birds in warmer states and of course, we get Noisy Miners and Rainbow Lorikeets in Victoria so why did we find this divide in birds visiting baths? 

Well, we speculate that perhaps introduced birds do better in a cooler climate, meaning that our southern states, including Victoria and Tasmania, feels more like the country that they were introduced from (often the UK). 

While in the warmer regions like South East Queensland and the Sydney Basin, we found fewer introduced birds at baths and more native aggressive honeyeaters, such as Noisy Miners and Rainbow Lorikeets. 

Although they are native, these aggressive honeyeaters can bully smaller birds such as fairy-wrens and keep them out of gardens. So we are seeing a difference in birds using bird baths depending on where you live.

A few surprise visitors turned up at baths such as a Goshawk drinking happily from a bird bath in a Sydney backyard, which was recorded more than once drinking from the bath. And of course, all other birds stayed away while the Goshawk used the bath! 

This shows that somewhere along the line, even the predatory birds we’d normally associate with the far away world of the wild, have become comfortable with human existence – so comfortable they are attracted to suburbia!

The Australia-wide citizen science project ran for a total eight weeks over two parts in winter 2014 and summer 2015. The resulting study, Avian Assemblages at Bird Baths: A Comparison of Urban and Rural Bird Baths in Australia, was published in the most recent edition of the multidisciplinary science journal, PLOS ONE.

Dr Cleary and her research team have now begun work on the next stage of the study, The Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study. Working with Mike Weston and Kelly Miller from Deakin University and Darry Jones of Griffith University, Dr Cleary has developed an on-line citizen science portal that allows us to investigate what people are feeding birds, how often and why food and/or water is provided and composition of plants/vegetation in gardens. 

We will also investigate the motivations behind why people provide food or water for birds and what they feel are the benefits to themselves and the birds.

Once the study is complete, the team hope to develop evidence-based guidelines for the best and most appropriate feeding practices that will enhance outcomes for native birds and to assist the development of environmentally responsible products such as bird food and feeding apparatus. 

Other outcomes of the study will include information about the impact that bird feeding has on bird assemblages visiting back gardens, insights into the nature of this human-wildlife interaction and what it means for urban biodiversity, and how smaller birds can be encouraged to visit gardens.

Do you provide water or food for birds? If you do and would like to participate in the Australian Bird Feeding and Watering Study, please register your interest at

Blog post by: Dr Gráinne Cleary, a research fellow at Deakin University in Melbourne