Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Passion Unabated Will Be Readily Conflated

Black-chinned and Broad-billed (the strange glowing thing in the background) Hummingbirds. Florida Canyon, AZ.

My indigent lackies who slave away in the BB&B basement have finally come up with a topic that we have not touched on yet: feeding wildlife. Ok. Lets take a look at it.

People feed wildlife all the time. There are probably millions of bird feeders all around the world. At city parks and waterfronts everywhere people feed ducks, geese, swans, gulls, squirrels....even monkeys in some places. This has been going on for a long, long time, and it's not going to stop anytime soon. Then of course there are the myriad rodents, possums, skunks, raccoons, bears, etc. that also fill up on what the other animals don't eat, usually at night.

The standard opinion amongst American wildlife biologists is that no wildlife should be fed by people at any time except for in the most extreme circumstances, such as when they are trying to stabilize or boost the population of an endangered species (a la giving carcasses to California Condors). Why the extreme view? Potentially, wildlife can become habituated to humans (which potentially puts them more at risk to injury or death by various dumbasses, dogs off leash, etc) and view them as a source of food (human food lacks a lot of the nutrition wild animals need). When they congregate in large masses (i.e. at bird feeders), this puts them at risk for spreading of disease, which indeed does happen at unkempt feeding stations. And if wildlife change their habits to exploit certain food sources (i.e. stay in an exposed, snowy, freezing place instead of going someplace warm), then that can just lead to them dying. Perhaps the most obvious example of this conflict is the classic Yogi Bear situation, in which potentially large and dangerous animals learn to associate people with food. A friend of mine actually lost a loved one due to something like this this is no joke. So not only is this not good for people, it's bad for the animals, because the ones that get a little too comforatable with people either end up shot or getting relocated, which is not necessarily that much better.

There are many more reasons to not feed animals, but I don't want to bore you, especially if ya'll know this already. As an exception, I have met relatively few people who are against the standard backyard birdfeeder scenario, as there is scant evidence to support the ideas that feeders will stop birds from migrating or switching to healthier food sources when it comes time to lay eggs and raise some chickies. Feeding birds is also extremely Quaint, and its really hard to publically come out against something that gives both you, your grandmother and your children a source of joy.

California (?) Ground-Squirrels. No food was dispensed in the making of these images. Morro Bay, CA.

Got it? Good. FEEDING WILDLIFE BAD. Now, as you may have anticipated, I have a slightly different take on all of this. For one, there are certainly situations in which feeding wildlife (and just littering, although its sad that I need to state that) can be extremely detrimental. I need not mention Yogi and friends. But take Humboldt County for instance. On Clam Beach, there is a population of Snowy Plovers that nest there. This being a Threatened species in the state of California, is a big deal. So when you feed gulls, ravens (intentionally), foxes, skunks, raccoons and rats (unintentionally), you are encouraging more and more of these predators to come around, get fat, breed more, and eat more Snowy Plover eggs/chickies. This is bad. In the old redwood forests, feeding squirrels, ravens and jays can lead to the same thing happening to the embattled Marbled Murrelets that nest there. So boosting populations of these versatile and capable predators is most certainly a big problem that could have heavy implications.

On the other hand, I think it can be pretty harmless in some cases. Take these squirrels above. They live in the rip-rap at the edge of Morro Bay, and are completely habituated to people and take handouts on the regular. There are two reasons I think this is not a big deal. A) Countless people stop by and hang out with these things. A few birders thinking they are doing some great deed by resisting the urge to toss one a crumb will not change the situation at all. B) They're squirrels living in a tiny margin of rocks between the road and the ocean. It's a pretty crappy place to live. I highly doubt that these fat things, buoyed by some crazy mix of nutrition (a discarded 4LOKO, perhaps?), are prone to leap down in a bloodthirsty rage upon unsuspecting turnstones poking around in the barnacles. Its just not a big deal. Now I don't think feeding them is a good idea, but get real. It's not the end of the world. 

As an aside, I am 100% against the feeding of stray cats. Feeding them does not stop them from killing birds, and god knows how many other reptiles, amphibians and undeserving native rodents. Cats (feral and otherwise) kill MILLIONS of birds in the United States each year. Most biologists are on the same team on this one. There is a legendary story about someone I know beating a cat to death with a stick in front of a stunned, blue-haired Audubon group. Now I don't condone this in any way, and I don't know if I'm even capable of doing something like that (I actually like cats)....but it makes a good story.

An Arizona Woodpecker harmlessly hones in on some suet. Paradise, AZ.

I guess all I'm saying is, there are few issues that are completely black and white, especially within the scientific community. I remember when I was a little kid, some Western Scrub-Jays would raise a couple chicks every year and would always spend a couple months with their family hanging out with my family. I loved that shit. I'm almost getting misty-eyed just thinking about it. Anyways, after a while the jays knew the deal and we would know the deal, and pretty soon the birds would be hopping into our kitchen to see if we had any snacks (FYI raw, unsalted nuts are not bad jay food). This had quite the impact on an impressionable young Steve. Now, getting on 20 years later, we still have jays that come sit in the same tree and yell at us to come outside. One is obliging enough to sit on your hand to grab a peanut. Call me sentimental, but I'd like to think they are the some of the same birds that we hosted so many years ago. Again, I don't recommend inviting wild animals into your kitchen, but perhaps this experience played a roll in me becoming the Uberbirder I am today.

If your child shows more interest in feeding your local park ducks than trying to kill them (which seems to be most kids who are capable of walking), then I say let  'em toss a cracker in to the lot. Live a litttle.

Have a weird Thanksgiving or Thanksfornothing (depending on where you are). I know I will.


  1. That was a great post.. Funny as much as my mom loves birds, I'm pretty sure she'd be closer to beating a Blue Jay with a baseball bat if it came in the kitchen than giving it a nut.

  2. I'm building bird habitat i have a lot Salvia's and different plants I have collected seed from around the world. I also have a large population of Ferral cats due to the foreclosures in california. I haven't had any trouble with the cats and birds. I do have a few aggressive hawks and the jays that are miserable but I have swallows, migratory finches, this year more quail then ever.

  3. I resisted putting up a bird feeder for a long time but relented late this summer. I'm glad I did- the chickadees show up first, then nuthatches, juncos, jays, etc. BUT, the damn squirrels finally figured out how to leap on to it. Oh well.