Sparrows swarm white bread sandwich
I’m currently rethinking the whole concept of feeding wild animals. Even birds.
In many species, feeding – whether intentional at the bird feeder, or unintentional at the trash bag - contributes to unnaturally large populations. Unnaturally large populations lead to animals being viewed as pests, which in turn leads us to kill the animals in order to manage their populations. Maybe better to let the populations stay small and hungry, no?
Pigeons are regular visitors to the Riverside Park bird feeders where they eat the seeds that fall beneath the songbird feeder. I like pigeons. But I recently watched a poisoned pigeon flopping about helplessly in the throes of a long, painful death. So by a lousy chain reaction, when I feed the pretty little songbird guys, I may also be contributing to a pigeon boom and so sending pigeons to be poisoned. I think I’d rather not.
Then there’s the disease angle. The scale of the current Manhattan rabies outbreak (more than 80 rabid raccoons from December 2009 until March 12, 2010) is surely tied to an unnaturally dense raccoon population in urban parks, especially Central Park.
Blurry iPhone photo of three raccoons on Riverside Park retaining wall - I know, I know, I really must get a real camera...
And the unnatural density is probably created by the extraordinary availability of food, much of it human-generated, easily accessible garbage.
Rabies is a well-studied disease. We know it’s lethal, highly contagious and zoonotic, meaning it can move from animals to people. Zoonotic diseases are on the rise, and include emerging infectious diseases like West Nile virus. So if feeding by humans encourages unnaturally dense, disease-susceptible animal populations among (unnaturally) dense urban human populations, maybe it’s not such a good idea.
But what actually are the benefits and problems caused by feeding birds and squirrels? Clearly, many humans receive a powerful emotional, even spiritual, uplift from the activity.
I recently spent a lovely quarter of an hour in Riverside Park with this gentleman.
“They don’t allow no pets where I live,” he says. “So I come here and visit my friends.”
Two or three times a week, more often if he has received “donations,” he buys peanuts and feeds the squirrels along the upper path inside the park.
“Hello. Hello,” he calls, waving as if to an acquaintance.
Sure enough, the squirrels stop what they’re doing to listen up.
And one by one, they move in to get their peanuts.
“They all know me,” the man says.It seems to be true.
We talk about the mange that ravaged Riverside’s squirrels about a year and a half ago.
“I was afraid they was all going to die off. Lot of them did die. But they came back. Yes, they came back.”They certainly did.
Sparrows approach, looking for hand-outs and a crow draws near the edge of the path
Maybe it’s the same crow I saw a few days earlier. It wasn’t freeloading then, but working hard for a morsel of acorn. It held the nut in its beak and slammed it repeatedly against the stone brick on which it was standing. Eventually the acorn broke open and the crow ate. Seemed to me to be a tremendous amount of effort for very small gain, but hey, a lot of people think lobster’s worth the effort.
The man and I part ways, and I wonder: does the pleasure we derive from feeding the animals outweigh the potential harm? How real are the benefits to the individual animal and to the general population? And how real is the potential for harm? Really, I’m just asking.
Across the country, human conflict with wild animals is on the rise. Coyotes, bears and even mountain lions are making their homes in cities and suburbs, causing alarm to some and yielding inspiration to others. Wildlife managers agree that the few individual animals that become aggressive are usually those that have become habituated to people through the presence of food.
I’m not saying bird-feeding New Yorkers need to start worrying about chipping sparrow attacks or being stalked by goldfinches. But pigeon poisonings, disease outbreaks and coyote visitations are prompting me to reassess some of my assumptions about our relationship to wildlife, including the consequences of providing open buffets.
I’d like to gather both opinions and research. So, dear reader, what do you think? Know of any interesting articles? Had an enlightening experience with feeding the animals? Feel free to share.
Meanwhile, Esau reflects on the wonders of life near a puddle left after the storm.