Is Feeding Bread to Ducks Bad and If So, Why?
I, like millions of others, love to take the chance to wile a weekend afternoon away in our local park. I’m fortunate that my local green space has a rather spacious and beautiful lake that creates a haven for a wide range of species of wildfowl. Some of my earliest childhood memories are trotting down the path, with my mom, dad or grandparents, stopping at the edge of the lake and waiting for an excited avian crowd to congregate in the water, literally a couple of feet away from you. Your parent or grandparent would hand you the plastic bag containing a few spare slices of white bread. Your face would light up like a star, as you eagerly broke off pieces of bread and chucked them at the swelling crowd ahead of you. You’d smile and laugh as you witnessed ducks, geese and swans of all shapes and sizes shove, hustle and peck at each other just so they can compete for a tiny morsel. It brought joy to me then, and it brings a smile to my face, when I see children feeding the ducks today, because it always takes me back to when I was in their shoes.
Is It Okay to Feed Wild Ducks and Geese?
All of us who either take or took pleasure in feeding the ducks may have been committing a grave error. It turns out that eating an excess of processed ingredients can have a harmful effect on birds, including an issue called "Angel Wing."
The Causes and Effects of Angel Wing
Angel wing, also known as slipped or crooked wing, is a condition that causes the last joint of the wing to twist, thus resulting in the primary or flight feathers sticking out rather than lying smooth against the body as is normal.
The primary cause is thought to be a nutritional problem; the problem usually begins when the bird is still growing from an immature bird to fully adult. If it is given excess, poor feed during this time, it can cause the bird to fatten up and grow too rapidly, resulting in one or more of the wing joints becoming deformed, resulting in angel wing.
One other major factor is the type of food given to the wildfowl. Most people who feed the wildfowl in the park give them white bread. The problem with white bread is that it causes a deficiency in vitamin E, which is found in high levels in the bird’s natural diet, so that’s things like leaves, seeds, and aquatic plants.
I must point out that angel wing does not affect the general health of the bird, and it does not leave it at risk from other health issues, but it does leave them looking very shabby. But most importantly, angel wing leaves them totally unable to fly. Of course it is possible that in a modern suburban park with a large lake, with an island situated in the middle, far enough away from the bank to prevent even the most determined predator from swimming across for a bird afflicted with angel wing to live quite comfortably and they do. Food is never a problem, because even when natural food becomes scarce, there is always the constant stream of human food to rely upon. But the fundamental fact remains, is that the bird cannot fly, so if a predator like a fox or an overexcited dog should appear, then it would have little chance to escape.
What Should You Feed Ducks and Geese Instead of White Bread
Below is a list of alternative food, you can take the next time you visit the park:
- Wild bird seed and other grains like corn, wheat and barley
- Specialist wildfowl feed (can be bought from places like garden centres or pet shops)
- Vegetable peelings or trimmings (chopped)
- Grapes cut in half
- Frozen peas that have been defrosted
- Earthworms or mealworms
Reasons Not to Feed Bread to Wildfowl
There are also other reasons why it can be bad to feed ducks bread of any kind on a regular basis.
- Firstly, when the birds are tiny ducklings or goslings etc, they must receive adequate nutrition for proper growth and development. Whilst the problem with immature and adult birds is fattening up, growing too quickly and developing angel wing, the opposite is the case with juveniles, as the deficiency in vitamin E, can cause malnutrition.
- Furthermore, ducks in general will always try to seek out the easiest possible food source, so if that means human handouts, the ducklings will find it much harder to forage natural foods, thus leaving them at a disadvantage.
- Then there's overcrowding. If the wildfowl living on a body of water such as pond or lake have regular access to an easy food source, the population will increase rapidly; more birds will lay bigger clutches of eggs. In time, it would become much more difficult for birds to forage for healthier food and establish territories; as a result competition over territory will become far more aggressive as is normal, even resulting in death.
- The next is pollution, a surprising one you may think for such an innocent and noble activity. But bear with me on this one. There are often times when wildfowl are given too much bread at one time, when this happens it will be left uneaten. When bread is left it of course eventually goes soggy and mouldy. If left on the ground, it can omit horrible and noxious orders, and when left in water it can promote the growth of higher concentrations of algae, which leads to waterways potentially becoming blocked, thus concentrating the amount of pollution seeping into water, potentially it could decimate the ecosystem in the near vicinity of the problem.
- Pest attraction is more obvious problem, because everyone knows what happens when you leave food rubbish on the ground for any length of time, it attracts your regular cast of pests such as rats, mice and insects. Pests like these, can pass on lethal diseases to the wildfowl and to humans, as we know when we look back in history.
- The next problem is disease, when the birds are exposed to a diet, rich in carbohydrates, they defecate more than usual, and all bird faeces harbour potentially harmful bacteria, responsible for a number of avian related diseases such as avian botulism, which is a form of avian food poisoning. Mouldy bread can also cause a disease known as aspergillosis, a fatal lung affection that can eradicate entire wildfowl flocks.
- The final problem is another rather obscure one. Have you ever visited the park and encountered that goose that seems to be more aggressive than the others. They are probably a domesticated greylag goose, known as an embden goose or farmyard goose, they are the goose that we all imagine, white all over apart from an orange bill, legs and feet. These birds tend to act more aggressively towards their contemporaries, they eventually lose their fear of humans and may even start acting aggressively towards you in order to procure food. I suppose you can understand that sort of behaviour in a domesticated goose, but I have also witnessed such behaviour in Canada geese. The problem lies with the fact that if the birds have regular access to handouts, they lose their natural fear of humans and become increasingly bold and aggressive. Furthermore the loss of fear of humans can result in other unforeseen hazards, such as bird crossing a busy road, in order to reach a group of picnickers or perhaps another body of water with easily accessible food. A similar phenomenon has occurred in various species of gull, particularly the herring gull, that fiend of a bird, normally responsible for the loss of a good sandwich or ice cream on the beach. Gulls in general are very intelligent and obtain a great portion of their food by stealing it from other sea birds, as humans began taking more holidays to the seaside, the gulls increasingly had access to a greater level of handouts, like the geese they lost their fear and became bolder and more aggressive towards us, affectively we, ourselves have become just another seabird to them, a viable target for the stealing of food.
What to Do With Old Bread (Instead of Feeding the Birds)
You may be reading this now, and thinking what to do then with my leftover bread. One option could be to start a compost pile in the garden in order to create natural fertiliser, it’s a great way to fertilise the soil for little or no cost. Bags of compost and peat can be expensive and in order to fertilise a decent patch of ground you have to buy at least three seventy litre bags. Your own compost pile gives you the opportunity to dispose of food leftovers in a responsible way, including that unwanted stale bread. There are options to experiment with stale bread recipes, such as bread pudding or homemade dressing and stuffing, as well as using stale bread to create homemade croutons by toasting them, but I’m not sure many people would like the idea of eating stale bread. The best method in my opinion is to simply to store the bread in the freezer; this allows it to last much longer than usual, and prevents you from throwing any away at all.
So the next time you feel like taking a stroll to the lake in the park, or want to do something fun with the kids, please be vigilant and please consider what you are feeding to the ducks, you may be doing them more harm than good.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2012 James Kenny