So Spring is well and truly here, with summer hot on its heels. Everyone is out and about enjoying our local parks, lakes and creeks. For a lot of people, taking their children out for the afternoon to `feed the ducks’ is pretty standard.
Recently in the UK there was a large push by the Canal & River Trust to raise awareness of issues surrounding feeding ducks bread, and offering advice to minimise these issues.
Birds natural diet
Wild ducks and waterfowl can easily find their own food, and can lead long and healthy lives by eating natural food sources such as aquatic plants, seeds, grasses, acorns, berries, plant matter, fish eggs, worms, snails and insects.
Bread within a birds diet
Other than as a source of carbohydrate, bread offers very few nutrients to ducks. It can be viewed in the same way as junk food is to humans, and too much of it will cause excessive weight and malnutrition.
It is extremely hard to regulate a ducks diet that lives in a community park or lake, and many of them will rely solely on bread products fed to them by well-meaning humans.
The RSPB says that
“White bread in particular has no real nutritional value, so while birds may find it tasty, the danger is that they will fill up on it instead of other foods that could be more beneficial to them.”
Overweight ducks will find it harder to fly and evade predators.
Despite being, in many cases, overfed, the ducks are undernourished. This weakens their immune systems, and makes them a lot more susceptible to disease. Lack of nutrients commonly leads to potentially fatal or disabling health conditions, such as the deformity known as ‘angel wing’, causing misshapen wings and limiting the bird’s ability to fly.
Ducklings that receive inadequate nutrition can lead to problems with their growth and development.
With an abundance of easy food, ducks and other waterfowl will breed more, and the lake will quickly become overcrowded. This makes healthier food sources more difficult to find, and increases the chances of territorial aggression.
Too many ducks or waterfowl in one place can stress the birds and lead to their habitats being damaged. It also creates excessive amounts of bird poo, which along with being smelly and slippery underfoot, can impair water quality and create harmful algae which can clog the waterway.
Littering and Pollution
Bread wrappers and plastic tabs are unfortunately a common sight around ponds and lakes where people have been feeding ducks. Many end up in the water and can harm or trap animals.
Excess bread left in the water rots and encourages algae growth. This algae, such as duckweed, then starves the water of oxygen, blocks out sunlight and has a detrimental effect on the ecology of the water.
Birds poo more when fed on a high carbohydrate diet, and these faeces harbour bacteria responsible for diseases like avian botulism.
Mouldy bread can cause aspergillosis, a fatal lung infection that can decimate entire duck and waterfowl flocks.
Because ducks are often thrown more bread than they can eat, the leftover bread floats on the surface and rots. These uneaten scraps of bread quickly harbour bacteria and can lead to the development of avian botulism, Duck Virus Enteritis, Aspergillus, and other diseases.
Uneaten scraps also attract vermin such as mice, rats and insects. Many of these animals also harbour additional diseases that are dangerous to humans.
Natural Behaviour Loss
Feeding ducks regularly in particular places makes them habitually reliant on food from humans, detracting them from their natural foraging and hunting abilities. Ducklings who grow up reliant on handouts will not learn natural hunting abilities, which can be detrimental upon migration as they are unable to fend for themselves.
As ducks become familiar with handouts, they lose their inbuilt fear of humans, and may become aggressive to get more food. This loss of fear can also lead them to cross busy roads in order to reach likely sources of food.
What you can do to help
National environment manager for the Canal and River Trust, Peter Birch says that their charity is asking for people to make a few simple changes in how they feed ducks:
“Please come and feed the ducks but do it sensibly so your children and future generations can enjoy it too… Bread’s not great for a duck’s health as it’s nothing like their natural diet so don’t overfeed them with large quantities of it.
“Try to vary what you give them and swap it for healthier more natural treats like oats, corn, or defrosted frozen peas. And exercise portion control’
Birch also said that the aim is
“not to discourage people from interacting with wildlife, but to do it in a way that recognised their particular needs.”
Healthy bread alternatives to feed ducks:
- Grapes cut in half
- Cracked corn,
- Wheat, barley and similar grains
- Seeds and birdseed
- Defrosted frozen peas and sweetcorn
- Chopped lettuce or other greens or salad mixes
- Rice – cooked or uncooked
- Chopped vegetable trimmings or peels
- Duck pellets
In summary, the top three things you can do to help ducks are:
- If you’re heading out to feed the ducks, avoid the overcrowded feeding hotspots find somewhere new and visit a new family of ducks
- Feed them less
- Feeding them healthier alternatives to bread