There’s a lot of debate about whether or not feeding wildlife is a good idea. In many areas feeding animals such as deer, moose or bears, is not only dangerous but actually illegal. “Don’t feed the wildlife” signs are a common sight in many state and national parks.
Yet in places like suburban backyards and city parks, the practice is often seen as harmless. During particularly harsh winters, it can even benefit species whose natural food resources have been destroyed by human activity.
But what you feed the ducks and birds matters. Just as too much junk food is bad for humans, it’s also bad for wildlife.
The non-profit Canal and River Trust conducted surveys to estimate that six million loaves of bread are fed to ducks each year in England and Wales. Peter Birch, national environment manager for the organization, told The Guardian that people shouldn’t be discouraged from interacting with wildlife. But they should become informed about a good diet for the waterfowl and birds they want to feed.
“Try to vary what you give them and swap it for healthier, more natural treats like oats, corn, or defrosted frozen peas. And exercise portion control,” he said. Greens cut into small pieces can also be fed to birds.
“Bread actually hurts birds more than it helps them, and can be likened to junk food,” writes biologist and wildlife rescue specialist Sophia DiPietro. “Birds fill up on it and no longer have the hunger to forage on what nature intended: insects, aquatic/terrestrial plants and for some species, fish.” Sugary foods should also be avoided.
According to The Humane Society, white bread, popcorn, and crackers aren’t nutritious enough for water birds. Consuming too much human food can lead to a medical condition called “angel wing” or "airplane wing," a syndrome where wing feathers grow in the wrong direction. The condition can look like a broken wing and prevent a bird from flying. The Humane Society also recommends against feeding wild animals by hand, because it can condition animals to lose their natural wariness of people.
Efforts to foster more local habitats may be a way better for people to interact with wild animals. Growing native plants in your backyard or garden that are already part of the local wildlife’s diet can benefit birds, butterflies and other pollinators.