Don’t feed the birds!

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Don’t feed the birds!

A lot of people love to feed birds, and I can’t blame them.  It’s fun, right?  I used to do it plenty myself.

Note that I said “used to”.  I am a huge bird-lover, but the more I learn about birds, the more I realize how important it is that we leave them alone.  (The obvious exception, of course, is backyard birdfeeders.  If you’d like some advice on how to set them up properly, I’d suggest asking the helpful folks at Wild Birds Unlimited.  Tip #1: get your birdseed from a legitimate supplier; don’t buy it from the grocery store, etc.  You can also go to places like the Reifel Bird Sanctuary, which provides appropriate food for their semi-tame population of waterfowl.)

Tonight I found a dying gull in Stanley Park.  His crop (where birds store their food before it goes into their belly) was swollen and he was spasming, regurgitating great quantities of bread and possibly the remnants of a hot dog.  The Wildlife Rescue Association (my recommended go-to place for sick animals) was closed, so I called a friend of mine who works there for advice, then put on a pair of gloves and transferred the gull to a dark box.  (Unless you are a wildlife rehabilitator, you should always call the WRA or the BCSPCA for advice on how to deal with animals.  An unfortunate number of animals are accidentally injured or even killed by otherwise well-meaning people.)  I then contacted the BCSPCA, which was absolutely fantastic and came by to pick him up so that he could be taken to the 24 hour clinic.  Shortly afterwards, and before the BCSPCA could arrive, he died.

I spend a lot of time in the park, and unfortunately I see a lot of people feeding the birds.  Some feed them bread or crackers or popcorn, which is terrible for them.  It’s the bird equivalent of junk food — heavy on carbohydrates but bereft of other nutrition.  It also fills them up extremely fast, faster than they might realize.  The BCSPCA surmised that this is what happened to our gull — he’d gorged himself on bread and choked himself.

Other people, believe it or not, feed the birds with cat or dog food.  This is very unwise for a number of reasons, the first of which is that cat and dog food contains meat byproducts and taurine.  The ducks, geese, and swans who are most fond of taking handouts from people are either mostly or entirely vegetarian, and eating these things can make them sick and kill them over time.  That said, there really isn’t a kind way to feed these wonderful animals.  Cat and dog food is pretty terrible, but bread, chips, popcorn, and other “people food” isn’t much better.  They are wild animals, after all, and to force them to rely on hand-outs exposes them to dangers as they begin to consider human habitats their own.  We also cannot provide them with the nutrition they would actually eat in nature — the foods that their bodies need and are designed to eat.  They fill up on junk and as a result, suffer from malnutrition while at the same time, becoming too heavy to fly.  You can learn more about the dangers of feeding bread and other “people food” to birds at

What about pigeons?  I used to love feeding pigeons — they are friendly, clever, and entertaining birds, and a particular favourite of mine —  but I don’t do it anymore.   You can buy seed mixes that are more-or-less healthy for them — they are grainivorous birds — though as we’ve seen they’ll eat plenty of other things.  So why not feed them?

Part of the reason that pigeons are so successful in cities is that they breed based on how much food they’re getting.  They can have one brood a year, or, if there’s enough food, they can have six.  And at any given time, one-third of the pigeons in any area are visitors, scoping out better feeding opportunities.

(Sidenote: This is why poisoning or otherwise killing pigeons is not just cruel but ineffective: when the number of pigeons drops, there is suddenly more food per bird.  The food supply has gone up, and so the pigeons start breeding faster.  In addition, the aforementioned visiting pigeons notice the increase in food per bird, so they come and bring their flockmates with them.  And so in a very short period, the population is back to normal, or even above normal!  The only way to reduce pigeon populations, as cities in Switzerland and Germany have proven, is to reduce the amount of food they get — not by starving them, but by cleaning up the human refuse they rely on, and by educating the public on the effects of overfeeding the birds.  More information here for those who are interested:

And so I don’t feed pigeons because I am concerned about their population.  We will absolutely not hurt pigeons by feeding them less, but we might cause problems for them if we inflate their population excessively.  (Not everyone appreciates these wonderful birds–fortunately, in Vancouver the typical method of controlling pigeons simply involves putting up spikes in areas that they’ve settled.  This is completely humane, if  annoying to the pigeons. ) They have lived in our cities for hundreds and hundreds of years, because they are clever and adaptable and because our buildings closely mimic their original homes–high, rugged cliffs — and here they will stay.  But there’s no reason to overfeed them.

If you really love birds, please admire them without feeding them.  It doesn’t do them any favours.  In places like Stanley Park, you can usually get a very good look at birds up close.  And if they’re not close enough, I suggest getting a pair of binoculars — there’s no better way to enjoy birds without bothering or harming them!



September 19, 2010 at 9:54 pm

Thanks, Becci, for an extremely interesting and informative article. I wish the Parks Board – and schools – would increase their public education campaigns.


June 27, 2011 at 12:18 am

Don’t feed the birds, but backyard bird feeders are Ok?

That’s called hypocrisy, my friend.

Feeding wild birds has saved many birds from starvation during harsh winters. You can’t ignore the fact that human beings are part of the equation.


June 27, 2011 at 8:57 am

Hi Milen,

Thanks for your comment. I am not stating that backyard bird feeders are okay because I have one (I don’t) or because I don’t love feeding pigeons and gulls (I do–or did, that is). I know that in certain places in the world, like Trafalgar Square, the pigeons are almost entirely reliant on people feeding them to stay alive. I suspect that this is what you’re referring to. That is an entirely different situation than in most places, including Vancouver, where our urban birds thrive as part of the ecosystem of a city, without the (intentional) help of people. Considering the fact that not everyone loves birds as much as you and I, it’s wise to consider what would happen if their population reached an “unfavourable” point. Many cities respond by shooting or poisoning. I think it’s reasonable to instead allow the population of urban birds to ebb and flow on its own. We are very fortunate that we will not run out of pigeons, gulls, crows, etc, anytime soon, regardless of how much we feed them.

Contrastingly–and I will try to go quickly here–wild, non-urban birds do not necessarily thrive in cities. They were here first, and then we built a city which disrupted their natural ecosystem. By setting up a bird feeder, you are creating small pockets of refuge for migrants as well as resident birds. Urban birds come as the result of cities, and non-urban birds attempt to adapt to them. They aren’t all successful, which is part of the reason that so many are going extinct.

Thanks for your comment.

linda roberts

June 25, 2012 at 12:04 am

Excuse me, but how can you refer to what was put here as something that should be considered and taught by the Parks Board as “public awareness?” First of all, I know a great deal about pigeons and many of them never see more food that the pizza crust they happen upon, or the crap WE AS HUMANS throw down as food in a day (pigeons eat weedseeds) and many of them DO STARV TO DEATH because they simply cannot find enough food in a day. I have come across starving pigeons, and have rescued them and released them. I know a well-known vet in Vancouver and she has told me: The Wildlife Society does not always have the resources or manpower to rehab a sick or injured pigeon and unfortunately, many that arrive there end up euthanized (they will not admit this, however, but it is a fact-they cannot do a costly procedure always on a pigeon). People will always feed pigeons in parks. You will never stop that; that being said, the pigeon numbers can be controled 100% in a human fashion by reintroducing a program being used in Switzerland and Holland with astounding pigeon control results, known as: THE PiCAS METHOD OF PIGEON CONTROL. The answer to humane and effective pigeon control always relys on regaining access to their nesting sites, so in these countries, they are setting up artificial dovecoting parks. Attractive dove cotes are built in a specific location. Feed is put there and the pigeons are enticed to begin nesting there (they will always go where the FOOD IS). THE COTES are cleaned every 2 weeks by volunteers. Clean water is provided and voluntary vet care. The pigeon location is visited very 2-5 days and the new eggs are taken away and a wooden or plastic egg inserted in the nest. In Basil Switzerland, for example in a 3 year period, the pigeon population of 25,000 was reduced down to 2500-5000 birds. You do not even see their pigeons – they remain at the pigeon park where the food is. People are discouraged from feeding the pigeons anwhere else, just in the park. They love it. They can take their children there and feed seed to the pigeons at the dove park without being made to feel like a blood FELON. I am trying at the present time to inform the public about this system by contacting Mr. Guy Merchant of PiCAS UK (The Pigeon Control Advisory Services Center, England). He has consented to do an interview with any newspaper journalist who wants to know more. If you would like to see it go to press, please contact Derrick Penner, the Editor for The Vancouver Sun and get him off his lazy *** to do the interview, which he at present has not done, even with my offering the personal phone number, free of charge of Mr. Guy Merchant, of PiCAS. That is how pigeons numbers will be humanely controled.
I also agree, that recommending back yard feeders as okay is hypocritical of you. Just because people prefer the enjoyment of a finch or a hummingbird over a pigeon because their are fewer of them is rather narrow thinking. If you have ever raised pigeons, as my family cousins did when I was a kid, you would see them in a different light, they are intelligent, affectionate, intertaining and lovable. Then you would get over your constipation about them.


June 26, 2012 at 6:29 am

Hi linda,

Thanks for your comment! As it says in my post, I agree with you completely on the matter of pigeons. You described them as “intelligent, affectionate, entertaining, and loveable”, and I called them “friendly, clever, and entertaining” and one of my favourite birds, so I’m pretty sure we agree on this issue. I already recommended specifically the humane pigeon control populations being utilized in Switzerland and elsewhere by PiCAS in the 3rd to last paragraph.

I am continuing to excuse bird feeders for the reasons I mentioned in my response to Milen above; pigeons, starlings, gulls, etc, thrive in cities because they are incredibly adaptable and do wonderfully around human beings regardless of whether we (intentionally) feed them. Other wild birds do not, necessarily, as we’ve taken over their territory and changed the landscape into one that they cannot always adapt to. I’m certainly not suggesting that throwing a few seeds to a pigeon once in a while does them any harm–and I definitely don’t mean to imply that people should love and admire them even one iota less than non-urban birds–but it is wise to keep in mind the fact that pigeons breed frequently and quickly and that depending on where you live, “excess” pigeon populations are cruelly dealt with by poison or shooting.

Thanks again for writing and for being a friend to birds. And keep spreading the word about how great our urban birds are!



July 9, 2012 at 7:13 pm

@Linda Roberts– And what about all the baby pigeons you’ll be murdering… I’m going to subsidize populations of free pigeons that can eat and breed as much as they want to counteract your evil plan!

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