In Defense of Feeding the Wildlife

As a serial apartment-dweller, I long for birdfeeders. I grew up with kitchen windows framing feeders flush with birds, but small, urban rental units rarely provide this opportunity. I brim with envy of friends and family with backyard birdfeeder bonanzas. So when I moved last month to a main-floor rental with a treed yard beside greenspace, I jumped at the chance to hang a hopper and spread some sunflower seeds (I don’t know where the alliteration is coming from today I swear).

I know it’s impolite to brag, but as a thirty-something lifelong-birdwatcher I have literally seen thousands of chickadees. I don’t say this to make you jealous (well maybe a little) but to add gravitas when I say that I waited for chickadees to find that birdfeeder like a 6-year-old waiting for Santa Claus. It could not happen fast enough, and when the first one appeared it was like a Gamestation on Christmas morning. XCube? Nintendo Switchbox? Whatever.

My point here is that even for me – a person who by all reasonable measure should probably just be over it by now – there’s still something special about feeding the birds. Maybe it’s the novelty of placing the seed and feeders and then secretly watching the birds react to your benevolent givings. Maybe it’s the opportunity for connection and understanding with a small piece of the natural world. Or maybe it’s just fun to watch birds do what birds do.

But there is controversy in this pastime, and it’s a controversy I’ve seen rear its head recently in some online bird enthusiast groups (yes, all my material comes from Facebook). Some believe that feeding the birds is bad, and that we should keep our interaction with wildlife to a minimum. A sort of look-but-don’t-touch policy. A perfectly reasonable stance to adopt, frankly.

This argument is something I’ve thought a lot about because, in general, “don’t feed the wildlife” is a great piece of advice to live by. Doubtless you shouldn’t feed moose, or bears, or raccoons, or coyotes, or monkeys, or alligators, or all manner of other wildlife. When in doubt, the less-is-more approach is best applied to interactions with wild animals.

So why, then, do I think that birdfeeders – or even handfeeding songbirds – is different. How can I condemn a fellow feeding raccoons in his backyard, but turn around feed the birds in mine?

In considering these questions I have come to the profound conclusion that there are six (yes six) different factors one can use to assess any instance of wildlife feeding. Because everything has to be an acronym, I have (with only some gratuitous manipulation) made one: MASHED. I call it the Potato Principle, and I’m rather proud of it. Incidentally I considered using the acronym SHAMED but I think we might as well start off on a positive note, yes?

Anyway, here is how you can MASHED your way to ethical wildlife feeding, in my humblest of opinions (if there is such a thing).

The System

M is for malnutrition. Are you feeding the wildlife something that could cause a nutritional or dietary problem? Is the food heavily processed or far removed from what the animal naturally eats?

is for alteration of natural behaviour. Could this act of feeding alter the animal’s natural behaviour in a way that has negative consequences? Could the animal become dependent on the food source?

is for sensitive species. Is the species you’re feeding endangered, or otherwise a species-at-risk? Is it a species that is known to be particularly sensitive to human disturbance, or is it in a vulnerable situation?

H is for (wait for it) human habituation causing harm. Will feeding this species cause it to become habituated to humans, and if so, could this habituation expose the animal to harm or danger? Will it be brought into increased contact with roads? Could it become a nuisance animal that is ultimately euthanized?

E is for evidence and experts. Is there research that suggests you should not feed the animal? Are experts or reputable organizations telling you that you shouldn’t? Does a Google search on the issue give you any cause for concern?

D is for danger to humans. Does feeding this animal pose a danger to you or other people? Could this animal injure someone in the act of feeding, or in searching for a handout?

So there you have it, in all its spudsy glory. Want to see it in action? Consider the following.

The Beta Test

Firstly, I’m sorry for making you watch that. Now let’s put the principle in practice:

First we’ve got to consider malnutrition. What we have here is a man feeding a horde of raccoons with a bucket of hot dogs, and it must be said that these are the goddamn fattest raccoons I’ve ever seen. Every one of them is ten pounds of raccoon in a five-pound raccoon bag. They are profoundly upsetting to look at. Additionally, a hot dog is the most processed food known to humankind. They’re a health hazard for people, and that’s the intended consumer. They cannot be good for raccoons. This alone is reason to shut this down, but we must forge ahead.

On to alteration of natural behaviour, and this one is slightly trickier. Coons are naturally social scavengers and omnivores, so I don’t think it’s unusual for them to gather in numbers and take advantage of a novel food source. I do wonder about the density and the rate of contact between the raccoon causing in increased risk of disease transmission, but I can’t support that. We’ll leave this one, as there’s lots more to address.

Are raccoons a sensitive species? No. Are we in the clear here? Yes. Next!

Ok, let’s talk about human habituation causing harm. Are these raccoons habituated? Yes. Will it cause harm? Quite possibly. Habituated raccoons are considered a nuisance, and are often trapped or exterminated when they cause damage to property or concern about disease transmission. These animals may be safe on this man’s deck, but are they safe next door, or the next block over? Probably not.

It seems crazy that we even need to go here, but what are the evidence and experts telling us? Here’s one paper that describes how human feeding causes unnaturally high population density in raccoons, a risk of zoonotic disease transmission, and a high incidence of “vehicular traffic problems”. There are lots more in the zoonotic disease realm, as well as plenty describing the impact of subsidized raccoon populations as predators of more vulnerable species like turtles and nesting birds. On the expert front we’ve got wildlife rehabberswildlife control expertsSPCAshumane societiesAudubon societiesmunicipal governmentsprovincial governmentsnational conservation organizations, and this guy all telling us this is a bad idea.

Lastly, do these raccoons pose a danger to humans? You’re damn right they do. Even if you can get past the potential biting and scratching, you have to contend with rabies, leptospirosis, toxoplasmosis, raccoon roundworm, ectoparasites, and other transmissible diseases. The raccoon you’re feeding is undoubtedly a danger to you, but it’s also a danger to everyone else it approaches looking for handouts. The kids down the street roasting hot dogs in their backyard? Yep. The lovely old lady walking home with her groceries. You betcha.

Given the above, it is my (hopefully uncontroversial) opinion that feeding meat product to an army of rotund raccoons on your back porch is unwise and inadvisable. The system works.

The Birdfeeding Conundrum

Now that the testing phase is complete, it’s time to see how birdfeeding holds up to the Potato Principle. Here goes.

The first stop is malnutrition. I think we’re ok here, as the birds who eat seeds at your feeders also eat seeds in the wild. Granted they are probably slightly different seeds, but the nutritional composition would certainly be similar. As long as you’re not putting anything weird in your birdfeeder (and I have certainly seen people make some odd choices), you probably have nothing to worry about.

How about alteration of natural behaviour? This is often the loudest argument against birdfeeders, as there is a common belief that birds will become dependent on the handouts. Some believe that you should only feed birds in the winter, removing feeders in the summer when birds need to nest and feed their young. Others believe you shouldn’t feed at all.

Contrary to these ideas, research has shown that birds do not become dependent on feeders and easily move on if the feeding stops. In the summer most seed-eating birds transition to hunting insects – the high-protein diet their chicks need to grow and survive. They will still supplement their own diets at your birdfeeder, but they instinctively know what to feed their demanding chicks.

Sensitive species are not generally a concern at birdfeeders, as most feeder visitors are cosmopolitan species that have adapted well to living in proximity to people. If your birdfeeder did happen to draw in something rare or vulnerable you might need to make a quick reassessment, but that would be an unusual occurrence indeed. Chickadees and cardinals are doing just fine out there.

Do fed birds become human habituated? Of course. Does that habituation put them in harm‘s way? I would suggest it doesn’t, as long as some common sense is applied. Operating feeders in an area with outdoor cats would certainly be problematic. Disease transmission from feeders is possible, but remedied by occasional cleaning. Feeders may increase the risk of window collision, but that can be mitigated by thoughtful feeder placement and window treatments. Conscientious feeding shouldn’t put birds at risk, and habituation in the absence of harm isn’t necessarily bad.

The evidence and experts have much to say about birdfeeding, and it’s mostly favourable. There seem to be both benefits (in terms of population size, reproductive success, and body condition of feeder visitors) and drawbacks (like disease transmission, window collision, and increased risk of predation by both native and introduced (cat) predators). The drawbacks can often be mitigated with a little care and thought. Most experts seem to support responsible bird feeding, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society, the Humane SocietySPCAs, and national conservation organizations (and this oneand this oneand this one). Overall the suggestion seems to be that, based on what we currently know about birdfeeding, it’s a net positive or at least a push.

Finally we come to danger to humans. Unless you’re feeding cassowaries (please don’t) I don’t think we need to stress too much about this one. Fortunately, birds don’t generally carry diseases that are directly transmissible to humans, and chickadees aren’t that scary so you can rest easy.

To me, birdfeeding passes the MASHED test. With that out of the way, there is one aspect of the hobby that we should still address. We know that birdfeeding can have positive psychological effects on the people who do it. It can even help people through a global pandemic. Perhaps more importantly, it can help connect people to nature, and may be particularly valuable in doing so for children. It can even be a vehicle for community science. Connectedness to nature can motivate people to take action for the environment, and that is certainly meaningful.

Now obviously if there had been red flags while we worked through the system, the benefits of birdfeeding would be moot. Given that there weren’t, they are worth weighing in. Birdfeeding can have value for birds, not just in the provision of food, but in the fostering of bird-friendly attitudes and actions among its participants. It certainly worked for me.

So there it is, my verbose and unwieldy attempt to defend the feeding of wildlife, if only in certain circumstances. I release it into the public domain. Use it freely but remember, with great power comes great responsibility.

Stay tuned and I might just see how the Potato Principle holds up to something a little more controversial next time.

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