New Frontiers in Duck-Feeding

Bread is not good for birds. It's not deadly poison for most of the wild birds that humans commonly feed, but it's basically empty carbohydrates. Wild birds usually have plenty of opportunities to burn off calories, but it's still a better idea to feed them something that more closely resembles what they naturally eat.

(Conservationists usually argue that the best thing to feed to wild birds is nothing, to prevent stress and injuries from squabbling over an unnatural pile of food, dependence on humans, and over-breeding. But screw you, I like feeding birds.)

There's also that possible canard, ha ha, that says if a duck eats dry bread and then has a drink, the bread can swell in its throat and choke it, so you should always chuck your duck-bread in the water and not on dry land. I find this more plausible than feeding Alka-Seltzer to pigeons in order to cause them to explode, but I imagine there'd be pretty strong selective pressure against ducks living in human settlements who choke on bread.

In any case, I resolved to attempt to kill some ducks with astonishment, by feeding them something that's actually moderately good for them.

I got a degree on this subject from an intensive five-minute study program at the University of Google. Then, when I next went to pick up twenty tons of seed for the cockatoos from the local farm-stuff shop, I also bought a bag of "layer pellets".

Layer pellets in hand

Layer pellets are feed for egg-producing chickens. They're a compound feed made from various grains and maize and suchlike, generally with a lot of calcium, for eggshells.

Naturally, ducks like the Pacific Black Ducks at my nearest good-sized lake dabble around on the bottom of the lake with their tails pointing up ridiculously, and eat water-plant seeds, along with the occasional insect or snail or bits of plant matter they can find both in the water and on land.

(Digression: If you'd like to identify some bird you just saw in Australia, the Birds in Backyards Bird Finder is a good first stop. They even have a page for the emu, which makes me wonder if anybody has actually ended up there from the Bird Finder, after perhaps attempting to determine whether the six-foot fluffy dinosaur in their back yard is some kind of pigeon. Perhaps someone has at some point needed to determine whether the looming thing in their back yard is an emu or a casssowary.)

You can get various other prepared food mixtures for poultry, like "grower pellets" for instance; those have more protein and fat, to build meat fast. (There's also "mash", which is just the ingredients mixed together and not pressed into pellets.)

Layer pellets seem a pretty natural kind of food for ducks, though. There's endless debate over what people who keep ducks of their own should feed them, and of the niceties of wild-animal food intake in a world that contains humans tossing stale bread and rubbish bins full of fascinating stuff for animals equipped to fish it out. But layer pellets, for ducks, certainly seem to be close enough for government work.

I tried one of the pellets myself. If you were to draw a Breakfast Cereal Nutrition Versus Flavour graph with the X axis for "healthiness" and Y for "flavour", corn flakes might score something like 5 and 6 respectively, and Frosted Flakes of Nothing would score 1 and 8. Layer pellets taste like a cereal that would score 10, and 0.2.

Would the ducks like them more than I did? Would they even recognise these things as food?

Throwing chook pellets to ducks

Yep, looks like it.

Feeding ducks

Both the ducks and the eurasian coots that inhabit Wentworth Falls Lake were entirely delighted with the layer pellets.

(The coots, by the way, have extraordinary feet.)

Ducks eating chook pellets

The pellets are denser than water. If I threw them in the lake then I suppose the ducks might dabble them up again, but it was more fun to just scatter food near our picnic blanket. Ducks' beaks were stabbing away at the ground like little pneumatic drills.

They were even almost brave enough to eat pellets from my hand, but all any of them ever actually managed was a vague bite at the end of one of my fingers. No part of a duck seems to be particularly pointy, so I was in no danger of...

Cockatoo wrist damage

...what happens when a cockatoo decides to perch on my arm.

(I tried layer pellets on the cockatoos, too. They were very confused. One scattered the little pile of pellets with his beak to see if there was some actual food underneath.)

All in all, a very successful day out. Layer pellets aren't expensive, either. Highly recommended.

Posted in Birds. 6 Comments »

Dan's Travel Advice Service

(This post probably won't be of much interest to many of you, but my answer to this e-mail got long enough that I figured I should make a post out of it.)

A reader writes:

I realise that this doesn't fall into one of the usual categories of your on-line works, but surely it's not as strange as asking which shampoo you use?

I am fortunate enough to soon be travelling from the UK to Sydney. Whilst there my girlfriend and I thought that we would take a trip up into the Blue Mountains, most likely by taking the train to Katoomba [where I live -Dan]. Whilst there we plan to do the usual touristy things such as taking panoramic photos of the Three Sisters and admiring the waterfall.

Seeing as this is your neck of the woods, I was hoping that you might be kind enough to offer any other recommendations for a couple of car-less tourists who don't mind a bit of a walk? Any recommendations would be gratefully received, from a nice place to stop for lunch to a good public spot where we might be able to see some of the flocks of birds that terrorise you each day, or somewhere that has particularly nice views over the mountains.

Thank you,


I'm sure I'm forgetting some stuff, but here are some semi-random thoughts:

On the way from Sydney to Katoomba or back, if you want to see numerous Australian animals up close (plus various random things like peacocks), go to Featherdale Wildlife Park, which is moderately close to the station.

Featherdale is pretty much a whole day out by itself, but you could go there in the morning and then on to Katoomba in the evening and stay overnight, or something.

Friendly cockatoos

There's a very friendly flock of cockatoos that hangs around the Royal Botanic Gardens in central Sydney, too; there's no guarantee they'll actually be there when you are, but take some bird seed and if they're there, you will be covered with them. Long sleeves recommended.

Triangular bat

Snoozing bat

The Gardens also have a zillion fruit bats and ibises.


The first will make a lot of noise but ignore you, the second will try to steal your lunch.

The ibises will eat from your hand, and their super-long beaks mean they are essentially unable to harm you even if they want to.

Back in Katoomba, there are numerous restaurants and cafes. "Fresh" is good, but only do breakfast and lunch. When I go there I only ever order the BLAT (BLT plus avocado), because it is a perfect BLAT.

Chork Dee is in my not very humble opinion the best Thai restaurant. The Chork Dee Chicken is great if you like coriander; the Chork Dee Chicken with no coriander is great if you do not like coriander.

Three Sisters BBQ is your standard cheap and decent Chinese place. Arjuna is unfortunately a bit of a walk from the centre of town, but is an excellent "authentic" Indian restaurant, which makes it bad for me because I only like Westernised fake Indian food.

The Common Ground Cafe has good, cheap food, but you should not go there unless you like supporting a religious group that forbids completion of high school, says men are better than women, and hits children. Every other restaurant in town hates the Common Ground, because they achieve such low prices by the simple expedient of not paying their workers.

Returning to the happier topic of colourful birds, you should probably go on the Scenic Skyway, run by Scenic World; they now have a Skyway car with a liquid-crystal floor that goes transparent to scare tourists even more. At the Scenic World end of the Skyway they do bird-feedings of some description; birds will come and sit on you and munch seed, and almost certainly not try to take your ear off. I'd get some seed at the supermarket in case the Scenic World people try to sell it at a markup.

The other end of the Skyway is easy to reach from town and as good a place as any to start a walk along the cliff path. The path from there to Echo Point is I think still officially closed after last year's bushfire (in which we came pretty bleeding close to losing our house), but it's perfectly passable. You just have to step over the supports for a couple of bits of boardwalk that burned up. There's no more opportunity to fall to your death than there was before the fire.

The cliff walk continues past the Three Sisters and on towards Leura, Home of Almost Nothing Affordable, or you can go down the Giant Stairway into the valley, from which sane people return to Scenic World on the very steep tourist railway thing that plays the Indiana Jones theme every time it operates and strangely does not seem to have turned any of its operators into serial killers as a result.

(Scenic World also has the world's lamest revolving restaurant - it's a normal restaurant with tables on a big turntable that slowly turns them past the windows. Probably a rip-off too, though I haven't seen the menu. Likewise, do not buy anything, at all, at Echo Point. Buy stuff in town.)

As far as views go... views are bloody everywhere around here. Can't avoid 'em.

Well, unless you come on a Fog Day. Those are rarer in summer, but sometimes it happens. You can still walk the paths and feel a sort of general sense of immensity even if all you can see is stuff inside your own eyeballs, but it's obviously a bit disappointing. You still see the tourist buses trundling around (a day pass could be a handy thing if the walking gets a bit too much...); I can only imagine the driver's saying, "and on your left, nothing; on your right, A TREE no sorry you missed it, more nothing on the left again..."

Sometimes you turn a corner on the path and just walk straight out of the cloud and suddenly have a view again, though.

One other place you might like to go to, especially if you decide to walk to Arjuna, is the old raceway at Catalina Park.

Catalina raceway
(Image source: Flickr user cskk)

Catalina raceway
(Image source: Flickr user cskk)

It was decommissioned in 1969, and is gently crumbling back into bush, making it now Australia's Best-Paved Bushwalk.

Dogs at Catalina raceway
(Image source: Flickr user cskk)

It's a strangely peaceful place where locals walk their dogs and no tourists ever go. Not far from town, but adjacent to nothing except the swimming pools and the aforementioned Arjuna restaurant.

This was all just off the top of my head; I may add another thing or two, and I'm sure there's some stuff I don't even know about. Commenters are welcome to recommend other interesting things to see and do. See how outlandish you can make an entirely fictional tourist attraction before I notice!

Like piranhas with a cow

It is possible that you do not, as a matter of course, have at least fifty cockatoos turn up in your back yard for a feed every afternoon.

If you do, I advise you to, as I do, purchase your bird seed in 25-kilo sacks, and not attempt to feed the cockatoos with a supermarket seed bell.

Those don't last.

(Available in HD!)

The loud scrapey-thud noises happen every time a 900-gram bird uses the microphone on top of the camera as a perch.

Extension of this behaviour brought the video-shooting to a halt when only about half of the seed bell was gone. But, as I said, you get the idea.

(I know it's not good to give them a small source of food so they fight over it. The regular seed I spread on the table, and on the deck itself, which greatly reduces the Skesis act.)

They come over 'ere, they take our bird-seed... wait, no they don't

Blue-eyed cockatoo

I originally thought this blue-eyed cockatoo was, in another triumph of creative bird naming, called a Blue-eyed Cockatoo, but as commenters below point out, it's actually a Little Corella.

It showed up all by itself at the feeding table, and grumpily snapped at the sulphur-crested cockatoos when they tried to get some of the seed. The newcomer is significantly smaller than a sulphur-crested, with a much less impressive crest, but it's bigger - and apparently more bad-tempered - than a galah.

The newcomer was very successful at keeping the usually-boisterous mob of bigger birds away for a few minutes, while it filled up on the mound of sunflower seeds. (I am, as regular readers know, engaged in an ongoing experiment to determine whether wild cockatoos can become obese.) Then it flew away.

It took me a few tries to identify this bird [and then, as I've mentioned, I got it wrong...], because I couldn't find anything resembling it in Birds in Backyards' excellent Bird Finder. The Finder usually leads you quite easily to the right Australian bird - it's my first stop whenever I see a new feathered beastie here in Katoomba. But it didn't work this time.

I thought that meant this wasn't an Australian bird; if it actually had been a Blue-eyed Cockatoo, it would have been a slightly endangered native of the Bismarck Archipelago of New Guinea. That's about 3100 kilometres (1926 miles, 558 leagues, 15,410 furlongs) from this house. As the crow, or cockatoo, flies.

So I figured this one was probably an escaped pet. But since it's actually a Little Corella - the bags under the eyes are quite distinctive, if the crest isn't up - the only odd thing is that I've never seen one at the feeder before. I don't know why I didn't find this bird's page on Birds In Backyards. Perhaps someone forgot to tick the "blue" box in the "colours" part of that database entry, or perhaps I insisted it was finch-shaped, or something.

Our fifty outdoor pets

If you like watching large decorative birds eating seed, flapping around and squabbling with each other, this is the blog post for you.

As regular readers know, I shovel ever-increasing quantities of seed down the throats of whatever birds deign to visit the table on our deck. Most of the freeloaders that show up are Sulphur-crested Cockatoos (they even outnumber the pigeons!), and I've shot video of them before. But it only now occured to me that I could clamp the camera onto the table and go away.

So that's what I did.

This is before the full afternoon mob showed up, so it's relatively civilised.

Same table, most of the same cockatoos, a little further away.

And now, the afternoon rush!

It gets a bit samey toward the end, there, but I laughed every time another huge beak filled the screen, so I let it roll.

(I swear one of 'em tries to say "cock a doodle doo" at 5:44.)

Avian nominative bathos

Here in Australia, we're famous for giving things, places and creatures goofy names.

I mean, just pick one letter. Wagga Wagga. Wallabies. The Wollemi Pine. Wollongong.

(And when Monty Python did their sketch about the Bruces from the University of Woolloomooloo, Australia, the silly-named place they chose was actually not some tiny town in the boondocks, but a spot in the middle of Sydney.)

Bird Of Mystery

So, when a rather rotund bird I'd not previously seen showed up at our feeding table, I was optimistic.

Bird Of Mystery

Surely, this plump creature with its habit of thrusting out its neck comically would have a ridiculous name.

Could it, perhaps, be a Wonga Pigeon?

Wait - perhaps it was a Wompoo Fruit-Dove!

But then I found out that this white-headed pigeon is actually... a White-headed Pigeon.

Oh well. Can't win 'em all.

Big pink pigeons

Our back deck ceased to be a restaurant for birds several months ago. I decided it was time to put out some seed again.

As usual, $US10,000 worth of brightly coloured beasties turned up shortly afterward.

Galahs at the water bowl

Along with the usual Sulphur-cresteds and rosellas, this time we got a couple of galahs.

We've had a galah or two hanging around the seed before, but I never got any photos of them. They're pretty birds, and relatively reserved when there are only a few around. Get a few hundred of them in one place, though, and they turn into one of the world's premier sources of frivolity.

("Galah" is also a somewhat archaic Australian colloquialism for a fool. The birds haven't really earned that, but I believe the boobies deserve to have their complaint heard first.)

Galah with raised crest

Galahs have a crest, but it's not nearly as impressive as that of the Sulphur-crested. As with the big cockatoos, they raise the crest when excited.

These two got to spend quite a while with their crests up...

Sulphur-crested cockatoo being a bully

...because the bigger birds, as usual, insisted on pointlessly bullying them.

This sort of inter-species animosity is one of the reasons why conservationists don't actually much like backyard bird feeders. An unnaturally large and reliable food source in one very small area forces different bird species to rub shoulders, and they never seem to enjoy that very much.

They never actually seem to come to blows, though. Even when the notoriously aggressive currawongs show up and start staring down the cats through the window, the other birds just give them a wide berth and come back later.

And now, I am pleased to present...

Cockatoo fluffs up

...a variable-geometry cockatoo.

He suspects nothing

He suspects nothing

Mickey isn't actually very interested in cockatoos, on account of how large and alarming they are. When he startles them and they blast off to the safety of a nearby tree, he often seems as surprised as them.

That doesn't mean they don't feel the need to keep a careful eye on him, though.

(Previously. All bird posts.)