Feeding wildlife: when the signs say "don't" and the animals say "please do"

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

City dwellers are cautioned against feeding urban wildlife. Leave the city and signs found near lakes and forests warn against the practice. We are told that feeding can habituate the animals to the presence of people, cause them to seek out human food where they should not be, be opportunities for disease transmission and accustom them to an increase in calories that cannot be depended on. How much of those concerns are borne out in the research and what to do when the signs say “don’t feed” and those birds, squirrels and more say “please do?”

People feed wildlife from squirrels and birds to feral cats and free ranging dogs to bears, for whatever the doing brings to them –the dynamic of the moment, the interaction of relating to these other species in a shared positive interchange. Birds, squirrels and more that do well around people do more than tolerate us, they thrive on being comfortable enough around us to identify and depend on us as a supplemental and sometimes necessary food source. There is the caring for, the nurturing we can offer and how good that can makes us feel. There is the wonder of it, to be able to be so close to these other species so like and unlike us. There is that, we can imagine, are perhaps, friends for these moments of shared time and space, a relationship with each other of connecting in harmony. And there is the feeding we do unintentionally, our garbage can be rich in discarded food that hungry animals can profit from. Raccoons are expert at opportunistic foraging and are known to be even healthier eating from our trashcans than from the forest floor where mice and other prey can carry parasites like roundworm.

But what happens when what we are feeding, how often or where we are doing it makes animals sick? Backyard bird feeders are targeted as being vectors for contamination because of improper cleaning and congregating birds together where they normally would not go. Increasing available food can cause populations to increase thanks to greater resources but what happens when the feeding stops? A study run in Illinois by Travis Wilcoxen, David Horn, et al. tells us:

“some of the birds at feeders were capable of clearing or tolerating infections because the symptoms were absent upon subsequent capture. Nevertheless, a small percentage of birds at feeders were clearly suffering from disease, were in extremely poor physiological condition and were not recaptured in a symptom-free state...We conclude that birds that use feeders are typically healthier than birds without access to feeders, with the exception of higher disease prevalence rate at feeder sites. In addition, our physiological data suggest that the removal of feeders after they are well established does not lead to a crash in the health state, and as such, feeders appear genuinely to be supplemental and do not create dependency among free-living birds in our area”

Feeding wildlife can also be good for the planet. It can make us feel good for how we feel about nature, benefitting attitudes towards conservation. Researchers Daniel Cox and Kevin Gaston surveyed garden bird feeders in England and concluded:

“Overall, we found that the feelings of being relaxed and connected to nature were the strongest drivers. As urban expansion continues both to threaten species conservation and to change peoples’ relationship with the natural world, feeding birds may provide an important tool for engaging people with nature to the benefit of both people and conservation.”

Feeding wildlife can be done by officials with a purpose. Despite signs to the contrary, there is “supplementary feeding” of wildlife practiced routinely as a management and conservation strategy. Not all experts agree on the methods or on the theories. Concerns with increased disease transmission through congregating animals at introduced food sources and increasing tolerance and attraction to human presence and places continue to be raised. Wildlife managers may wish to increase the numbers of certain species in an area or draw them away from one. Safety concerns for humans and animals can exist in less urban areas with species that are “conflict rich” such as brown bears.

Understanding responses to supplementary feeding can be filtered through food offered, location, climate conditions and who’s doing the responding. Looking at how these methods are approached, a team of scientists, led by Sam Steyartaert and Jonas Kindberg compared GPS relocation and resource selection data with brown bears in Solvenia and in Sweden and noted that variation in selection behavior amongst individuals should be relied on over grouping behaviors under populations. In other words, it’s not brown bears, it’s the brown bear to think about.
And while individual variations in behavior are key, in closer proximities, like city parks, cultural variations impact behavior too. Interactions with urban birds in London and New York City can say just as much about the people by watching how the birds are around feeding.

Just across the road from Buckingham Palace, St. James Park has one of the larger collections of exotic waterfowl in London (The Regent’s Park also shares this status). I have visited this park and observed that wildlife in St. James Park was accustomed and perhaps dependent on a diet that is foraged in a good part from human handouts in addition to whatever else is on offer in their natural environment. Sleek and well-nourished squirrels were actively at work burying treasures from passerby’s. And the birds! In addition to the ubiquitous pigeons and gulls there were waterfowl here that this New Yorker had not seen –Moor hens with their scarlet bills and coots with white bills and foreheads and both sporting long and fleshy toes-the better to navigate both swimming and watersides. Mandarin ducks with exotic plumage who have escaped captivity and decided that southern England suits them just fine. There are Tufted Docks with their great hairdos. And the graylag geese- true British birds- being the only species of grey goose to breed in the UK.

The Royal Parks Organization who is in charge of the parks asks that people not feed the herons, crows, pigeons and geese in the park. The organization points out that such feeding impacts on population which needs to be controlled (read culled) and that the grounds and water quality are impacted. Royal Parks also wisely gives advice on what to feed for those of us determined to ignore that advice: No white bread or moldy food. No cheese or meat and no cooked food aside from rice, lentils, barley and split peas which are not good for birds when given raw. If you must give bread which is not the best diet for birds you are advised to make it whole wheat or wholemeal as they say in London. Bird seed is good as are duck pellets. And for the swans-they love lettuce. Good to know.

Here, as in most urban waterfront settings there are people who feed waterfowl as a pastime, an entertainment or to simply get close to them. But in St. James Park there is the added dimension of how some of the birds have learned to most comfortably get close to the humans around them. Greylag geese line the walkways of the park and actively solicit pedestrians with a soft and direct gaze. Quietly engaged, they survey the passing humans for interest and respond gently to anticipatory movements of forthcoming food offerings. The demeanor of the birds suggests being cherished by locals and tourists alike. There is nothing hurried or frantic in the birds’ movement. There is no rushed grasping and retreating distrustfully. Rather a calm and stately procession of birds watching for people they have learned to trust will feed them gently.

And New York City’s Central Park? Our squirrels and birds keep more distance from us and we are told to keep it that way. Recent park regulations advise that $1,000 fines can be levied for feeding wildlife. A park worker told me recently that feeding concerns were more about the rats that would share in greater available food. People liked squirrels and birds, he said, but not rats. City rats are poisoned in some areas and gassed in others. Allowing for that wildlife to not be wild has impacted the raptor populations which prey on rodents to their great detriment approximately 80% of all necropsies done on raptors show rodenticide poisoning.

Signs notwithstanding, with the COVID pandemic our own behavior and time around urban wildlife has shifted. There's a lot more bird feeding and bird watching going on in Central Park these days with the pandemic limiting activities to mainly outdoors. And with much of midtown deserted by lunch time crowds and restaurants and food shops closed, the midtown pigeons and rats are starving being driven to find food sources in other places humans would like them not to be. But in Central Park, which is having a Renaissance in user use, their urban wildlife would like to thank the pandemic for the extra snacks even if the raptors and mothers would like us all to keep away. Certain camera manufacturers must appreciate it, that's some expensive equipment you see out there. Not the owls or any bird that needs/like their privacy 'though. All that human attention can be intrusive. Even seagulls have been found to be disturbed by human presence - can you imagine a nocturnal bird that needs to sleep during the day or a mother with chicks surrounded by whispering/talking/clicking/moving below?

But not the squirrels, busy at any time of year on working on foraging and hiding finds for eating now or resources to keep sufficient fat reserves through a coming winter. Squirrels will never say no to a supplemental feeding. And the winter brings tufted titmice. Wondering where they first learned or how, these birds are voracious where handouts are concerned. Accomplished in landing one or two at a time on an outstretched palm, toes grip tightly the outer finger for them to best select from what's on offer. We know birds remember people and faces and who's good to interact with or not but mostly this translates to a closeness in approach or a comfort in yours. Cardinals, jays, woodpeckers and other know the spots where feeding happens but they wait for those snacks to come to them. Not the tit mice, their confidence and sociality around people gets them first in line at feeding. Not to be outdone, black capped chickadees are learning this behavior and getting in on the act.

So if we do provision food to wildlife to keep them from and draw them to places. If the birds we feed outside our homes teach us to value the natural world more highly, Will Central Park goers feeding wildlife learn what the squirrels and birds in London know already? Take a closer look at the geese in St. James Park who work the crowd. Compared to other feeding interactions one can see where the human is hesitant, afraid and rushed in the giving of the food and the animal learns and responds in kind. It is lovely to see this in this place the behavior of the geese and the humans are gentle, measured, sure and trusting. This kind of trust can only come from a history of gentle interactions because this is learned behavior for both species. We can both get there no matter what the signs say.


Cox DTC, Gaston KJ (2016) Urban Bird Feeding: Connecting People with Nature. PLOS ONE 11(7): e0158717

Steyaert,S.M.J.G., Kindberg, J., Jerina, K.. Krofel, M., Stergar, M., Swenson,, J.E., Zedrosser, A., (2014) Behavioral correlates of supplementary feeding of wildlife: Can general conclusions be drawn?, Basic and Applied Ecology, Volume 15, Issue 8, Pp 669-676,

Wilcoxen< T.E,, Horn, D.J., Hogan, B.M.,Hubble, C.N., Huber, S.J., Flamm, J. Knott, M., Lundstrom, L. Salik, F., Wassenhove, S.J., Wrobel, E.R., (2015) Effects of bird-feeding activities on the health of wild birds, Conservation Physiology, Volume 3

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