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.
With the return of warmer weather comes all our beloved spring pastimes: taking hikes, planting flowers, and feeding the birds.
But not so fast.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.