Attention small children and seniors: I know it's fun, but please don't feed the birds.

Spring is officially here!

Birds are chirping. Bees are buzzing. Blossoms are blooming. We made it through another long, chilly winter. High fives all around.

Me at any given moment.


With the return of warmer weather comes all our beloved spring pastimes: taking hikes, planting flowers, and feeding the birds.

But not so fast.

Photo by iStock.

While it's fun and relaxing to take a stale loaf of bread or bag of popcorn down to the park to feed the birds, the practice can be really harmful.

Here are six reasons why.

1. Most of the food humans offer has little nutrition.

"It does not contain the right combination of nutrients the birds need," says Dr. Stanley Temple, Beers-Bascom professor emeritus in conservation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "In warm weather, it can quickly become moldy and make birds sick. If dry, stale bread is eaten quickly, it can lead to impaction of the birds' digestive tract."

Children feed the ducks at the waterfront in Annapolis, Maryland. Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.

2. Since bread is basically bird junk food, too much can cause problems.

According to Temple, birds that eat too much bread can also develop a deformity called "angel wing," where the last joint of a bird's wing twists out instead of laying flat against the body. A bad case of angel wing can even result in death.

People feed swans and ducks at a lake outside Minsk, Belarus. Photo by Viktor Drachev/AFP/Getty Images.

3. Wild birds are really good at finding naturally occurring food on their own and don't need a helping hand (or a wing).

Even if that hand has really tasty or desirable food.

"When we studied winter bird feeding, we discovered that even when birds like chickadees had free access to bird feeders full of attractive seeds, they only obtained about a quarter of their food from the feeders," Dr. Temple says. "The rest they found from natural sources."

Ducks at a pond in Central Park, New York City. Photo by Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images.

4. Feeding waterbirds can make them less afraid of humans, which could prove dangerous.

"If they're used to being fed by people, they'll automatically associate a person with food and walk towards people. You'll often notice these ducks or geese will come right up to you," says Joe Liebezeit, Avian Conservation Program manager for the Audubon Society of Portland, Oregon. "But ... say these birds are migratory and they go to a wildlife refuge or an area where there's hunters. They're going to increase their chances of mortality if they fly toward a human."

He had it coming. Save yourself, bird!

5. It can also do serious damage to their natural habitats.

When humans feed birds in the same places, as is often the case in city parks, shorelines, and walking trails, birds learn to gather in those spots, even if there isn't enough space or natural resources to accommodate them.

And when local nonprofits or agencies work to restore or improve habitats, often at high costs, large clusters of birds can cause rapid degradation.

Ducklings in a garden in Sieversdorf, Germany. Photo by Patrick Pleul/AFP/Getty Images.

6. Additionally, when birds gather together in natural and unnatural concentrations, diseases can spread quickly.

"There are some avian diseases like avian cholera and avian botulism that are especially a problem in areas where birds are clustered together," Liebezeit says. "That can lead to mass mortalities."

So put down the breadcrumbs and consider other ways to enjoy birds and wildlife in your area.

There are hundreds of wildlife refugees in the U.S. alone where the public can see animals and waterfowl thriving on naturally occurring food sources. There's even an easy online tool to find a refuge close to you or one to visit while you're on vacation.

Pink-footed geese take off to feed from Montrose Basin in Scotland. Staff and volunteers at the Scottish Wildlife Trust have recorded more than 65,000 geese arriving to spend the winter in the reserve. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images.

Check out resources and events from the Audubon Society or other conservation groups in your area for information on birdwatching, wildlife viewing, and habitat restoration. There are opportunities for people in urban areas to volunteer or see native wildlife.

Let's make spring a healthy and safe time for our fine feathered friends, and let them find their own food.

Put down the treats and pick up your camera, notebook, or binoculars. You'll be glad you did.

Birdwatchers in the San Antonio forest near Cali, Colombia. Photo by Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images.

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Whenever someone's words or behavior are called out as racist, a few predictable responses always follow. One is to see the word "racist" as a vicious personal attack. Two is to vehemently deny that whatever was said or done was racist. And three is to pull out the dictionary definition of racism to prove that the words or behavior weren't racist.

Honestly, as soon as someone refers to the dictionary when discussing racism, it's clear that person has never delved deeply into trying to understand racism. It's a big old red flag, every time.

I'm not an expert on race relations, but I've spent many years learning from people who are. And I've learned that the reality of racism is nuanced and complex, and resorting to a short dictionary definition completely ignores that fact. The dictionary can't include all of the ways racism manifests in individuals and society, and the limitations of dictionary definitions make it a poor tool for discussing the topic.

Since "racism" is such a loaded term for many people, let's look at such limitations through a different complex word. Let's take "anxiety." According to Merriam-Webster, "anxiety" is defined as "apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill."

Now imagine thinking that you understand everything that encompasses anxiety from reading that dictionary definition. Imagine thinking you could recognize the signs of anxiety in someone based on that definition alone. Ridiculous, right? The dictionary doesn't explain that some people's anxiety manifests as anger, even though it does. It doesn't say that anxiety sometimes manifests as withdrawal or aloofness. It doesn't say that you often won't see obvious signs of fear or nervousness in someone experiencing anxiety.

The dictionary doesn't offer anything close to the reality of what anxiety is or looks like. It would be silly to say that someone isn't experiencing anxiety because they're not clearly showing signs of nervousness like the dictionary definition implies. Just as the dictionary definition of anxiety is not comprehensive, neither is the dictionary definition of racism. Yet people keep using it to "prove" that something or someone isn't racist.

Fox News analyst Brit Hume just pulled that trick on Twitter to try to back up his claim that Donald Trump's "go back to" statements to four Congresswomen of color weren't technically racist.


The first Merriam-Webster entry for "racism" reads "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race."

Merriam-Webster

First of all, I'm not sure how this definition actually makes Trump's statements not racist. A belief is not always conscious, so even assuming that his racism is unconscious, a white man telling four women of color to "go back to" their countries of origin—despite three of them being born in the U.S. and the fourth being a naturalized citizen of the U.S.—is pretty objectively racist. No one knows exactly what is going on in the President's head, but such statements only being made to women of color would certainly be consistent with the behavior of someone with a belief in white people's inherent superiority.

But that simple definition isn't truly definitive, either. Shortly after Hume's tweet, Merriam-Webster pointed out a usage note for the word "racism," which clarifies that dictionaries do not provide the be-all-end-all definition of words.

Anti-racism advocates have tried time and time again to explain that racism is not as straightforward as someone saying, "I think I'm superior to people who don't share my skin color." Racism is almost never that blatant, and yet oodles of Americans refuse to call anything less than that kind of bold statement "racism." We have a long history showing exactly how white supremacy—the origin of racism in the U.S.—exerts itself in both strong and subtle ways, and thousands of hours and pages of education from experts describing how racism works on an individual and societal level. But people still insist on the simplistic narrative of "Racism=hating people of a different race."

I've seen many people, including Brit Hume, argue that the word racism has lost all meaning. Frankly, that's a copout. Racism—as both a conscious or unconscious belief of racial superiority and as a system of racial prejudice blended with power dynamics—has a broader meaning than one person hating another person for the color of their skin. But that doesn't make it meaningless.

I've also seen people complain that "everything is racist these days," but no, it's really not. We simply understand more about racism now, thanks to the field of race studies and to people of color offering their time and energy to explain it, so it's easier to identify in its various forms. In my experience, when someone's understanding of racism reaches a certain stage, they start recognizing it in places where ignorance or unconscious bias may have caused them to miss it in the past. That's not imagining racism where it doesn't exist or "calling everything racist these days"; that's simply seeing reality more clearly.

When you really dive deep into the historical, psychological, and sociological reality of racism in America, it becomes painfully obvious that racism is far more prevalent and enmeshed in our society than most people think. Until defensive, mostly-white folks stop automatically denying racism every time the word is used and stop throwing around dictionaries to avoid having to do that deep dive work, we're not going to make real headway on this issue.

Let's stop pretending that the definition and supposed overuse of the word "racism" is the problem, when the problem is racism, period.

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