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.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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