Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls to his Friends

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?

Pretty pigeon

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2010, Birds, coyotes, In the City, March, NYC Parks, rabies, raccoons, Riverside Park, Seasons, Spring, Squirrels, Wildlife/Natural History

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13 Comments on “Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls to his Friends”

  1. […] Harry Dog Cleans Up NYC Streets Feeding Wild Animals: Squirrel Man Calls to His Friends Of Rats, Red-tails and Rodenticides How Many Raccoons Live in Manhattan, Anyway? If You Build It, […]

  2. […] heed the scary signs, and leave wildlife alone.  Enjoy the raccoons, but don’t feed them or try to lure them closer so you can get a better […]

  3. M. L. Says:

    I recently came upon this term I think you’d be interested in if you don’t know it already: biophilia, or humans’ innate love of nature (source: “Bringing Nature Home,” by Douglas Tallamy, who advocates gardening with native species).

    I recently moved to Westchester and have been really enjoying feeding the wildlife. From what I’ve read, feeding wild birds doesn’t do harm as they get most of their sustenance from nature. Feeding birds might help them survive a particularly harsh winter, and there’s possible evidence the range of some bird species has spread because of that. At the same time, I’m disinclined to feed white-tailed deer. I enjoy their presence, but they’re overpopulated, and their numbers seem unmanageable with no natural predators around.

    What’s surprised me is how wild the squirrels are that live in my yard. I’ve been putting out seed and peanuts for about two and a half months now, but they still run away from me. I guess that’s as it should be.

    • Thank you for your comment. I will look into the Tallamy book. In general, I think you’re probably right about feeding wild birds, particularly small backyard species. Still, feeding geese and pigeons may contribute to overpopulation in urban and suburban areas, which in turn leads to drastic measures like NYC’s recent killing of geese in Prospect Park. Agreed about the deer, although I always love to see them. From my Manhattanite perspective, it’s hard to imagine New York squirrels running away a food source. I was recently in British Columbia, and loved watching the Douglas squirrels who were swift and quite shy.

  4. Rob Cuthill Says:

    I’m wondering where in riverside park you found the guy that feeds squirrels. I’m doing a short comedy film where a political candidate spends all his time feeding squirrels. It’s not supposed to look like NYC so other squirrel feeding places like Madison Square park won’t work for me. So I’m wondering if you could help me out. Thanks so much.

  5. Larry Jordan Says:

    Melissa, thank you for bringing up this important subject.

    I have been feeding wild birds for several years. I also monitor Bluebird Trails in rural Northern California and have been actively trying to bring back the dwindling Burrowing Owl population here.

    My view is that we humans have taken much of the wild land available on the planet for ourselves as we multiply and consume more and more of the earth’s natural resources. Most birds, as well as other wild animals, have become extinct due to habitat loss and destruction by us. This is why I became a BirdLife Species Champion. You can read their reasons for bird conservation here.

    Although I think that the best way to support wild bird populations is to landscape your yard with local native plants that attract birds to your yard, I also support my local bird populations with feeding stations to help them through the winter and nest boxes to help them during breeding season.

    Cavity nesting birds lose homes as forests are destroyed, just as Burrowing Owls lose their homes as the grasslands are filled with human habitation.

    The studies I have read regarding feeding wild birds have concluded that it is generally positive for the birds, with few detrimental effects. You can read Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s take here, and and article by a group of avian veterinarians here.

    • Melissa Says:

      Thanks so much, Larry, for the thoughtful reply and the links. Your work on behalf of the Burrowing owls is terrific. One of these years, I hope to see a Burrowing owl in the wild. Your points are well taken, and I look forward to reading the links. I’m probably conflating separate issues when I lump feeding mammals with feeding wild birds. Of course, feeding anything in the heart of Manhattan is hardly a typical situation. The day after I posted Feeding Wild Animals, I was watching a tufted titmouse near the bird feeders, and met the woman who maintains them. We had an interesting conversation in which she made many of the same points as you did about feeding the birds. I’m still gathering research and comments, and will eventually write a follow-up.

  6. […] Cooper at Out Walking the Dog has been thinking about the impact and implications of feeding our wild (and urban […]

  7. Joy Says:

    We use birdfeeders year-round here. I’m currently living in a rural area on the outskirts of one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S. A wave of suburbia will be sweeping over us within the next decade. Almost daily, I see trees and grassland being cut back to make room for houses. Our property is one of the few completely wooded areas around. It will be difficult for the woodland birds that live here now to survive without some assistance, especially during the winter. I may be prolonging the inevitable, but I feel obligated to help them out.

  8. I’m really interested in the feeding topic, too. I see our relationship with lots of species changing and we’ll have to rethink feeding. Certainly it’s bad when it could harm the animal or another person.
    But I’m not sure that it’s always bad. Yes, it’s unnatural. But so is tearing down a forest and building a city. We’ve taken away so much, so many food sources.

  9. Charlotte Says:

    The other day i observed a raccoon and a cat about 4 ft. apart in line for food that my neighbor had yet to put out. the cat was rolling around in acquiescence, the raccoon backing up slowly, and i’m sure the skunks were waiting behind the scenes somewhere too. it’s just wrong to feed wild animals, esp here in this part of LA where there’s plenty of small meals in the canyon beyond. How to stop people from doing it, that’s the question and the problem.

    great shot of that man, wow. and also love the one of Esau, looks like he’s in front of a smoldering pond…?

  10. mthew Says:

    I’m pretty agnostic on feeding birds, although I do know that giving old bread to waterfowl isn’t good for the birds (empty carbs are emtpy carbs). If I had my druthers, I’d just let nature take its course even in winter when birdseed can be very helpful, but, of course, we have so influenced nature that there may not be much real nature (that is, untouched by humans) left.

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