Feeding the ducks. Photo by Susan MillerChildren love animals. For many kids, their first experience with animals that are not their pets are the ducks in the local pond. The family outings often include a lesson in sharing as they toss the hungry birds bread and picnic scraps and urge them to come closer. The problem is, feeding wildlife is very bad for the animals being fed. Let’s look at some of the reasons why.

Curious squirrel. Photo by Stephen HollingsworthHabituation

When wild animals become accustomed to handouts, they lose their natural fear of people and may become aggressive. Animals that are accustomed to being fed by humans will approach humans indiscriminately, and they don’t understand why some people feed them, and others don’t.

An animal may become frantic when a particular person doesn’t provide the expected handout, and that’s when people get bitten. Feeding wildlife changes how animals view people, to their detriment, and to ours.

Remember that the animal you are hoping to draw close with a handout of food may inspire fear in other people. Coyotes, raccoons, skunks and other animals that come too close in search of food will be seen as unnatural by many people, and their habituated behavior may be interpreted as the animal having an illness like rabies.

A wild animal’s loss of fear can also lead it to encounter other dangers, such as domestic pets, and busy roads and parking lots, with obvious negative consequences.

Overpopulation

Plentiful food sources allow for larger populations of animals, so unnatural food sources may cause wildlife to have more babies. Mammals like squirrels and raccoons will have larger litters, and ducks, geese, pigeons and other birds will lay more eggs. The result is overpopulation,which causes many problems.

Too many of one species of animal coming into close contact with one another increases the likelihood of territorial aggression. If there is an established food source provided by humans, animals will congregate at that source. They’ll fight over the food and the prime territory containing it. Many of the wild animal patients admitted to WildCare with injuries from fights come from places where there is human-provided food.

Feeding wildlife and the resulting overpopulation also causes unsanitary conditions that create the perfect environment for pathogens like botulism and salmonella. Diseases like distemper and parvo that wild animals contract from unvaccinated domestic animals spread quickly when animals are drawn to a food source. Salmonella transfers between songbirds at feeders. Moldy bread can cause aspergillosis, a fatal lung infection that can decimate entire duck and waterfowl flocks.

Environmental Consequences

Uneaten seed, pet food or bread left outside is an easy meal for rats, mice and insects that can harbor diseases. Uneaten bread thrown out for ducks and geese in parks sinks to the bottom of lakes and ponds and rots, and the yeasts and sugars can lead to greater algae growth that can clog natural waterways. This concentrates the pollution and can eventually eradicate fish and other life in the vicinity.

Too often neighbors and park managers, dealing with an increased number of animals in the vicinity take the “easy” way out and put out poison to kill rodents, leading to poisoning farther up the food chain when hawks, owls and other carnivores discover the “easy meal” of the dying rodents.

Really, there is just no such thing as a free lunch.

Improper Diet = Health Problems

WildCare doesn’t recommend feeding any wildlife, and the waterfowl that are brought in for help from places like the Civic Center Lagoon in San Rafael and Stow Lake and the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco are prime examples of the damage feeding wildlife can cause.

These birds suffer from heavier parasite loads and bacterial infections than waterfowl from other areas. They have more nutritional problems that result in poor feather condition and impaired waterproofing, and more incidents of injury caused by inter-species aggression.

Duck and duckling. Photo by Marianne HaleWaterfowl eat a variety of natural foods, including grass, seaweeds and aquatic plants, seeds and grains, insects, small fish and amphibians, worms and other invertebrates. These foods are naturally available in the correct proportion of carbohydrates and proteins, and provide the vitamins, calcium and other minerals that comprises the optimal, balanced nutrition for waterfowl.

When people feed wildlife their leftover foods or even specially-purchased foods, like grain, this balance is destroyed. High proportions of sugars and fats are introduced to the birds’ diet in the breads, and too much protein in the grains.

Why Bread Is Bad for Ducks

A few pieces of bread aren’t lethal, but when you consider how many people feed their leftover bread to waterfowl, the picture changes. While one family may only feed the ducks a little bread now and then, there are many other people who are also throwing them bread, which leads to a diet based almost solely on bread products.

Breads offer carbohydrates, but little other nutritional value for waterfowl and other birds. In fact, bread is the equivalent of junk food for wild animals, and too much bread can lead to malnutrition as well as many other problems. Because everyone likes a free lunch, ducks naturally seek out this easy food source and their ducklings do not learn to forage for natural foods as easily. They become dependent on people.Canada Geese at the park. Photo by Ken Benjamin

Bread and other carbohydrates are fattening to birds, which can make it harder for them to evade predators. There is also some evidence that regular handouts can interrupt birds’ natural migration instincts because they have come to rely on a readily available food source. This is becoming apparent in species like Canada Geese. In the past, the migration of Canada Geese was practically synonymous with spring and fall; now in hospitable environments that people have created, such as parks and golf courses, many never migrate and remain year round.

Other Problems

Click for a downloadable PDF with more information on why feeding wildlife is a bad idea.