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How to kill wild birds with kindness

Angel wing in a Muscovy duck

Why do we feed birds if they have sufficient natural food available? Perhaps it is not entirely far-fetched to wonder if feeding birds might sometimes be connected to a dislike and fear of the wild. If we want to feed our leftovers, food we don’t want to eat ourselves or food that is, in any case, unsuitable, what does this say? What thoughtlessness (at best) or contempt (at worst) does this betray? Or perhaps feeding represents some propitiation of the wild, a throwback to a forgotten ritual in which future bounty is secured by offering part of the harvest to the spirits, the daimones that take the form of birds, lest they strip the crops in retaliation. Later perhaps comes the Victorian sentimentality that depicts the starving Robin pecking at the frosty window, our hearts finally moved by need, by vulnerability.

Since one of the intentions of these pages is to celebrate the natural world, a piece about the dangers of feeding wild birds would seem contrary. It is not. The entreaty is simple: please do not feed

Leg o'Mutton Reservoir
Leg o’Mutton Reservoir

white bread or other processed food to birds. White bread is a highly denatured food, full of additives and optical enhancers, and not recommended for our own consumption, never mind for that of birds, all of which have different digestive systems to humans (though in the interests of transparency I must own to a personal taste for toasted white bread – nothing else should ever be toasted, particularly not gâche).

Waste disposal

On a walk around Leg o’Mutton reservoir, now a nature reserve in Barnes, London, I came across a woman walking her two dogs, off the leash, while throwing white bread left and right that landed on the ground (you would have to throw a long way to hit the water). She guessed my disapproval I think because she had a sour and pugnacious look on her face already prepared for me. I suggested her bread would be food for rats not birds so she very reasonably pointed out that rats were wildlife too. I further explained that her act of throwing bread would help the rats breed and the consequence would be a reduction in birds since the rats would eat the eggs (among the aquatic species to be found here you will regularly see Swans, Tufted duck, Mallard, Pochard, Shoveler, Moorhen and Coot). Her reply was, “Everyone does it.”

I was immediately too angry at this blanket defence to engage further, and I stalked off seething. This was a mistake: good humour and openness might have won her over. As I walked away I heard her shout after me, “It’s for the Robins and the Owls… ” but there was something about the angry way she threw the bread that suggested she was throwing away the unacceptable part of herself, and that by having the birds eat it she would feel better. We can see an associated behaviour in the young children who pitch whole bread rolls into the water like depth charges.

Birds, like all the animals and plants on the planet, are at risk. Unsustainable agriculture, deforestation, fisheries bycatch, the spread of ‘alien’ species, pollution, exploitation and climate breakdown (all consequences of human action/inaction) are reducing biodiversity alarmingly. According to this link, up to one in four bird species will be functionally extinct by 2100: so surely it behoves us all to take responsibility as far as we are able – “Everyone does it…” is not an excuse.

Angel wing in a Muscovy duck
Angel wing in a Muscovy duck. Source: Wikipedia

Let’s look at the likely consequence of feeding white bread to birds – even assuming they eat it. First, the bread is dry: it will swell upon contact with water leaving birds vulnerable to attack by predators (remember the woman’s dogs were off the leash? Dogs frequently attack birds, just a few years ago the goslings of a pair of Egyptian geese were allegedly killed by a dog in this very place). Second, although not entirely proven, it seems likely that a high protein and carbohydrate diet is the cause of ‘angel wing‘ in (mostly) aquatic birds. It is a condition in which the last joint of the wing becomes twisted and the wing feathers stick out. Spend any amount of time at your local pond or reservoir and you’ll see it. So feeding white bread to ducks and geese may be physiologically harmful and will, in any case, increase the rat population – but there’s no need to stop feeding birds, just take some care about what you feed them with.

If you found this piece interesting, you might want to read my article about pheasant breeding.

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