STOP 'feeding' the ducks

I don't know about the rest of the world, but in Britain there is a very entrenched tradition of 'feeding the ducks'. People go on walks (usually at the weekend), and they take with them bagfuls of bread (sometimes even whole loaves). They then proceed to throw all the bread in the water. After a while the ducks and other birds at the pond get bored or full, and they stop eating it (see photo, taken over the weekend at Southampton Common's Cemetary Lake). Then more people come and throw in more bread. More people come, and they throw in more bread. Then more, and so on and on. On any given day, the most popular 'duck ponds' are polluted by, literally, kilos of bread.


By now it's well known that this behaviour is damaging to the ducks, and also to the welfare of ponds and lakes. Bread is bad for ducks as, apparently, they have trouble digesting it. As a result of all that rotting bread, and of the loads of droppings produced by an unnaturally high concentration of ducks, water quality degrades so much that the pond dies. The most popular 'duck ponds' are all entirely devoid of macroscopic life: no plants except for algae, and certainly no animals. Rats must think all of this is great, as whole families can usually be found living adjacent to these ponds. They become tame and unafraid of people and live on nothing but bread.

I know that the people who 'feed the ducks' think that they're being kind. It's also, for many people, one of the few (perhaps the only) interactions they have with wild animals. But you don't have to have a phd in zoology to see that it's a crap idea, and that it's really, really, really time to stop.

Coming next: more seabirds, RHYNCHOSAURS, and A Month In Dinosaurs (And Pterosaurs)!

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Most people use the argument that "I've been doing it for years and its done no harm." It has obviously, but they just don't see it). Thankfully my local lake is a dammed up stream so has a constant flow through it (but I dread to think how eutrophied (is that a word?) the stream out is. It obviously got plenty of fish, since it supports up to 30 cormorants.
But then I've seen pea soup village ponds with a few mallards and some reeds and not much else.
The problems not restricted to ponds. In a park with deer in a pen the deer were getting ill because people started feeding them unhealthy amounts of bread!

It isn't just Britain. An American friend of mine lectured me on the horror of feeding bread to ducks warning it leads to malnutrition - she was working in a bird rehab centre at the time.

By Mary Blanchard (not verified) on 22 Jan 2009 #permalink

When the lakes have been frozen Ive been throwing bird seed on to it for them to feed on, but thats not really practical when the water is liquid, unless you put it on the bank.

Here in Singapore, most ponds and lakes of any size are inhabited by a wide variety of non-native fish. We have only two native resident breeding species of anatids, and both are rather shy and retiring, with the rest of the species recorded locally being either rare passage migrants that seek out the few remaining natural wetlands, or introduced ornamentals which hang around the lakes at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.

So most people toss bread or koi pellets to the fish instead. If I recall correctly, there are signs in some of these places, prohibiting people from feeding the fish, but I've seen folks flouting this rule on more than one occasion.

I'm not sure if fish have any trouble digesting bread, but these non-native species have certainly done extremely well, almost completely dominating the ichthyofauna of these water bodies. Red-eared sliders (another very common introduced species) will also jostle for food whenever these mini feeding frenzies occur.

Based on what I've observed, most of these ponds do still support a variety of other aquatic organisms, from snails and freshwater mussels to insects and macrophytes, many of which are also not native to Singapore. (sigh) In the meantime, birds like kingfishers, rails, herons, and raptors do forage and hunt for food, and one can also commonly find Malayan water monitors hanging around in the vicinity.

So over here, where ponds are typically entirely artificial constructs, and are heavily used by a mixture of non-native and native species, the ecological impacts of feeding, if any, might not be so apparent. Although I have to admit, most ponds here are rather mucky and full of algae.

There are a number of fish farms open to the public, where you can purchase small packets of generic fish food pellets over the counter to toss to the fish and turtles in certain ponds. I've also visited a frog farm (raising American bullfrogs for human consumption), and you can do the same with the frogs.

There's also a turtle and tortoise museum, where the central feature is a pond absolutely packed with red-eared sliders and a small handful of a few other species. Definitely well over the carrying capacity, but the almost constant supply of food by visitors certainly helps support the unnaturally high population, and does really get them to equate any approaching human as a source of food. Seeing hundreds of turtles all swimming and walking towards you must seem like Mario's nightmare.

Same all over Europe, except that I haven't seen such extreme quantities of bread swimming around yet, and except that the bread actually is bread in most countries, as opposed to the British abomination that has usurped the same name.

Yay, rhynchosaurs!!!

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 23 Jan 2009 #permalink

I'm from the US, where duck feeding is pretty much typical childhood activity (at least in my little corner of the country). It was one of my favorite things to do when I was little. I was still surprised to hear people take entire loaves of bread! We used to take just the end pieces that I was too picky to eat myself. If the ducks stopped eating, we stopped throwing.

At one point, my grandmother read that bread was bad for ducks. (She interpreted that to mean that the yeast in the bread, plus water, somehow made the duck's stomach explode.) After that we switched to popcorn. I hope she was right and they tolerated that better, but now I'm more pessimistic.

By sublunary (not verified) on 23 Jan 2009 #permalink

There's a large duck pond at our local botanical gardens, and there are dispensers full of feed pellets, from which you can purchase a handful (for 25 cents) to feed the ducks. The pellets look like miniature versions of the compressed alfalfa range cubes, sometimes fed to cattle (my horses think they're "cookies"). Not exactly natural duck food, but probably better than bread; it's forbidden to feed the ducks anything other than the dispenser pellets.

You can purchase "wild bird' feed at the pet store, which is much better than bread and other assorted foods that people toss in; however, you still have to be careful not to overfeed because it attracts rats as well. The feed pellet dispenser sounds like an OK solution (if people insist on feeding) as long as there is no overfeeding. Anyhow, a normal duck population will probably not starve without these supplements (of course if they become dependent and overpoulated...) so it is best not to feed anything...or if you cannot resist or want to entertain the kids a small snack of feed. We have the same problem with people feeding ravens and all kinds of animals in U.S. National Parks. Please don't do it.

By Bill Parker (not verified) on 23 Jan 2009 #permalink

I love feeding the ducks, but I do it the right way. I go down to the feed store and buy actual duck food, then head down to University Lake, where ducks stay year-round for some reason, and give the freezing birds some sustenance. West Chester Lagoon is another popular spot, but it's vacated completely during the winter (as it completely freezes over--University Lake does not). In the summer, its residents include many species of duck, Canada geese, seagulls, loons, and grebes. Only the ducks and geese go after the duck food, though.

Here in Seattle ALL the lakes and ponds have signs saying Don't feed the ducks. We have a problems of too many ducks and geese polluting the water. Every summer the water near swimming beaches undergoes fecal coliform testing and are closed if the tests indicate there is a problem.

My first thought seeing this article was the park picnic scene in "About A Boy". If you haven't seen the movie, I won't spoil the scene.

When I was a wee lad, I used to gather snails out of our flower beds into a large jar (one that used to hold 3 lbs of peanut butter), walk the mile or so down to Anthony's Seafood Restaurant, and feed the snails to the ducks swimming in the very large pond that surrounded two sides of the restaurant. The ducks loved the snails.

On those occasions when I didn't feel like walking over to Anthony's, I would make lines of snails across the narrow, winding street in front of our house, then sit and wait for cars to zoom by. ..bruce..

It's not just ducks people feed; I witnessed (and blogged about) two girls (adults) throwing bread at a heron. I've known that feeding bread to birds isn't good for years, even done an undergraduate assignment on it.

Another prime example of something that would normally be innocuous, becoming damaging to the environment because of too many people.

It's not just ducks. I've seen people feeding flocks of pigeons, those rats-with-wings. "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" always sounded like a good idea to me.
A few years ago the city of Chicago cleaned out its sewage system. That sent millions of rats into the streets. A friend of mine had a rat the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, maybe bigger, living under his building. I was amazed to discover a group of people who came every day to feed the rat. Sick!

Hmmm... If bread is bad for ducks, I'd think it would be bad for gulls as well. The last time I really watched people "feeding the ducks" (at a pond in a park in a sea-side city), it wasn't clear to me that the ducks were getting much bread: child would toss bread roughly in direction of duck, gull would scoot in, elbow duck aside, eat bread.

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 23 Jan 2009 #permalink

At the 'duck ponds' in Salt Lake City, 'duck feeding' is endemic. But up to half, or even two thirds of the 'ducks' are actually seagulls, which are so obese they look like ducks.

You know, I've heard of feeding pigeons at the park, but not ducks. The closest thing is in Monterey Bay people like to go and look at the sea lions, but I don't think anyone feeds them.

I can't stand it when people feed ducks, and I love ducks!

By Kevin Schreck (not verified) on 24 Jan 2009 #permalink

Forget the ducks...I used to go down to the Ohio State University Mirror Lake in the wee hours of the morning (after we closed the bars), sit on a bench and feed the rats. Much more personable than the ducks!


People, especially older women, and especially in London WILL put food out for ...
Feral Pigeons. [ Colomba livia ]

They are known to carry diseases such as Chiamdiosis, an influenza-like virus, and Psittacosis.
"It is still unknown how big a health risk pigeons pose to humans" says one web-site, but someone I know was infected by diseases carried by the mites on pigeons, giving her serious blood poisoning.
A particularly visual pigeon problem however is shit. Combined pigeon deposits can weigh up to several tons and costs at least £15 million a year to clear up.

"Rats with wings" is unfair to rats, rats are much cleaner.


By G. Tingey (not verified) on 25 Jan 2009 #permalink

People, especially older women, and especially in London WILL put food out for ...
Feral Pigeons.

Common elsewhere, too, though probably decreasing.

[ Colomba livia ]


By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 25 Jan 2009 #permalink

I used to see people feeding the ducks in Toronto parks, and in one fenced duck-pond there were rats wandering around in broad daylight eating scraps. Twenty-five years ago, I used to throw them the crust off my lunch if they were interested. Back then, we didn't know any better. But we do now. The park has signs saying it's bad for the ducks and bad for the water to feed them, and people don't seem to do it any more. Some people still delight in feeding the pigeons. But I don't see as many ducks in the ponds or pigeons in the city, so I guess it's working.

I've been worrying because over the last few years, since we started composting all our foodstuffs and greasy paper into green bins, I've seen fewer and fewer birds in the city. But the city birds are the most human-tolerant: house finches, house sparrows, and starlings. Perhaps if we have fewer of them guarding the habitat, some of the wilder birds will spread into the parks.

Yes, Southampton Common lakes are indeed awash with bread. I spent a year there, taking photos of ducks for my University project. In order to entice ducks out of the water for my pics, I often caste small portions of bread on the ground for them (wholemeal of course, she says smugly in mitigation)- but frequently there wasn't any need as other people did it. So, there I was, taking advantage of an activity which, as you say Darren, isn't really a good idea. What did stagger me though was the amount chucked in the water - often huge chucks of white sliced loaves. And yes the rats had a field day. It is true though that a large number of people brought their kids to the pond to see the ducks and I'm sure it's a rare contact with nature for them .. so should this make it tolerable? Probably not. Although, as I say, my project benefitted (notwithstanding the hours I stood there in the freezing cold and the b****** weren't anywhere to be seen).

Quack quack

In the part of the United States where I live, I almost never see anyone feeding ducks. I think that the problems with nonmigratory Canada Geese have led to the practice falling out of favor.

However . . . About five years ago I went to a local pond where the Wood Frogs were holding their spring breeding chorus. A woman and young girl (presumably mother and daughter) were throwing chunks of bread into the pond, despite the fact that there were no ducks around. I started talking to the mother about how I came to the pond to see the Wood Frogs calling every year. It turns out that they thought that the clucking call of the frogs was the quacking of ducks, and that these ducks weren't visible because they had gone underwater.

By William Robertson (not verified) on 26 Jan 2009 #permalink

'Scuse me, I thought "..bruce.." was onomatopoeia (snails under car tyres) but it was probably just a sig. Carry on.

By John Scanlon FCD (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

There are other reasons why not to feed the ducks.

I live in Wisconsin, and at this time of year, lakes and rivers are frozen over. However, a flock of ducks has taken to camping out underneath a local bridge, and has subsequently become tame by people feeding them.

Snowmobile riders have a tendency to ride right on the ice at top speeds at night. Last week, two such snowmobile riders went underneath the bridge, right where all the ducks were sleeping, and killed over 60 of them.

Have you actually seen any published data on this? I am a PhD researcher from Australia and starting to look for some tangible studies on this issue....

Yes we can look at it and see problems but has anybody actually measured the water quality, the ducks health etc etc. I would be very glad to have references on this???

Michelle Plant