Some people have asked the parks department, “Why don’t you want us to feed the ducks and geese?”
There are several reasons behind this policy. We are trying to protect the birds, trying to protect the environment and trying to protect the visitor to the parks.
Two things to keep in mind are: Birds have amazing survival skills. Their ability to survive depends on the abundance of naturally occurring food along with the quality of their diet, and food quality is critical. This is especially true for the young birds in their first year. Their need for essential fats, nutrients and proteins is critical for proper development.
Among the problems hand-feeding causes waterfowl are the following: malnutrition, dependency, disease, increased hybridization, overcrowding of sites, delayed migration, water pollution, rising management costs, huring the environment and devaluation.
Let’s cover these in detail.
Hand-feeding waterfowl causes poor nutrition. The best things for them to eat include insects, grasses and aquatic plants. Bread, crackers, french fries and popcorn are a poor substitute, as they are poor in nutrients that the birds need to survive.
Adult birds need a proper diet to replace feathers and to recondition their bodies during the breed season or after migration.
Hand-feeding can cause the birds to become dependent upon humans for food.
It will increase the population, and with this, the birds’ behavior changes. The birds will become aggressive and a problem. They lose their natural fear of humans and become a danger, not only to you but to themselves. They can and will fly up and hit you in the face.
An adult Canada goose is capable of knocking over a child or a senior adult. Those that cannot compete will die from lack of food.
With an overpopulation and low nutrition, disease can spread through a flock of birds rapidly. Diseases such as duck plague, avian influenza and avian plague can spread quickly.
On that subject, Canada goose droppings can contain giardia parasites; while humans can’t catch them, your dog can. Don’t let him eat the droppings.
Domestic geese can interbreed with Canada geese, and that compromises the wild population.
Overcrowding of sites
Feeding attracts birds in numbers too large for the natural food and water supplies. This also causes grassy areas to become unsanitary and unusable.
Unnatural sites include fast food restaurants, retention ponds and parking lots. These spots offer no protection from predators and bad weather.
This is one reason we like to see the grass and weeds grow along the creeks; this hides natural predators (including cats and dogs) that help keep the wild population to a sustainable level.
The natural migration patterns can be altered by either shortening or eliminating them. If birds are reluctant to leave, they might not survive a sudden cold snap.
Not only does feeding the waterfowl turn them into a nuisance by causing them to begg or steal food, but they can add to the water pollution by the fecal material left behind.
Rising management costs
If the population gets out of hand, this also causes a problem not only from a budgetary standpoint but the closing down of areas that have been fouled by the bird droppings.
For example, if the population gets too large for the area, we might end up closing the playground while it gets cleaned up or the surface replaced.
Hurting the environment
The hand-feeding of waterfowl attracts them in unnatural numbers beyond the water and food supplies. This can also lead to overgrazing of vegetation, which leads to soil erosion. Soil erosion just leads us to more problems. The landscape also becomes undesirable for other animals.
When the number of wildlife becomes larger than the natural area can support, the public’s view of the value of wildlife changes. The view can go from wonderment to loathing.
The policy of not feeding the waterfowl is not in place because we don’t like them, but we do want to keep them healthy and out of your way. Watch the ducks play at the North Bridge in Riley Park, and you’ll see what we mean.
Joe Whitfield is a naturalist and gardener for the Greenfield Parks and Recreation Department.