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 birding.about.com.
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: http://www.picasuk.com/alternatives_to_lethal_bird_control.html)
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!