Angel wing: how to kill wild birds with kindness

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A short piece about the dangers of feeding wild birds. Angel wing and rats are just two of them.

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 it 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 comes the Victorian sentimentality that depicts the starving robin pecking at the frosty window, our hearts finally moved by need.

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 white bread or other processed food to birds. White bread is highly denatured food. It is full of additives and optical enhancers. It is not good for us, much less for birds. In any case, birds have different digestive systems to humans. I’ll be honest, I do like toasted white bread from time to time.

Leg o'Mutton reservoir April 2008
Leg o’Mutton reservoir April 2008

Waste disposal

Here’s an example of the lack of reflection that I am addressing. I was walking around Leg o’Mutton reservoir, now a nature reserve in Barnes, London. There was a woman walking her two dogs, both of which were off the leash. Already we have a threat to wildlife. She was throwing white bread left and right on to the ground (you would have to throw a long way to hit the water).

The woman 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. She very reasonably pointed out that rats were wildlife too. I explained that 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 too angry at this blanket defence to engage further, and I stalked off seething. It 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 associated behaviour in young children who pitch whole bread rolls into the water like depth charges.

Crippled angels

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 falls to us change our habitual ways. I know that some people might call me self-righteous. I agree – it’s easy to project our failings on to others. But I try to take what responsibility I can. “Everyone does it…” is not an excuse.

Muscovy ducks with angel wing
Muscovy ducks with angel wing

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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