Experience wildlife naturally, don’t share food

Metro Parks TacomaMarch 9, 2014 

A raccoon looks for handouts along Point Defiance Park’s Five Mile Drive. Animals such as raccoons and Canada geese can be problematic if they grow accustomed to eating human food.

JANET JENSEN/STAFF FILE, 2012

As spring rolls near, we all get a little antsy to get back outside. For some people, heading to the park and feeding the ducks is a pastime that has been handed down through the generations. Most people enjoy the experience and think of it as an inexpensive opportunity to connect with nature. What they don’t realize is all the harmful effects that simple act can create.

Do you ever wonder why laws prohibit seemingly harmless acts — such as feeding bread crumbs to geese or sharing your leftover picnic scraps with wildlife? Maybe you weren’t even aware that it’s illegal to feed birds and animals in the park. Or that violating this law can carry a steep penalty.

Here are some things you should know before tossing a crust of bread to the ducks and geese, or handing over a marshmallow to a begging raccoon.

Human foods can cause some serious health risks for wildlife. For example, a normal diet for geese would consist of grass, seeds and aquatic plants. Human foods lack the nutrients provided by these food sources. So, when you feed bread, popcorn and other foods to young geese it can result in bone deformities that can cripple them so they are unable to fly.

Feeding is not only potentially harmful to wildlife, it can also lead to significant health and safety risks for humans and domesticated pets. As wildlife becomes conditioned by human feeding, many species will change their natural behaviors, resulting in an imbalance in nature that brings undesirable consequences for everyone.

For example, Canada geese will change their migratory habits and take up permanent residence when conditioned by routine feeding.

Interactions with humans as a result of feeding not only causes the animal to lose its natural instinct to maintain a distance from humans, but it actually causes many to exhibit aggressive and territorial behaviors. The feeding has imprinted them to think of people as food sources. For example, instead of maintaining a distance from people, some geese will charge right up, honking and flapping their wings trying to get more food.

When a once-migratory population takes on permanent residence, their population is bound to skyrocket. As flocks grow in size, so does the amount of waste they create. So, along with overpopulation comes “over-poopulation.” Excess droppings are more than just a gross inconvenience; they also significantly increases the risk of public health concerns. On land, goose excrement provides a breeding ground for E. coli. bacteria. Resident geese scatter their waste through picnic and play areas as they walk toward people offering bread and other food. In urban lakes such as Wapato, goose poop contributes significantly toward the risk of toxic algae outbreaks.

The feeding of raccoons at Point Defiance Park has led to similar issues. Raccoons are naturally nocturnal creatures; yet, because of conditioning from feedings, they are commonly found begging along 5 Mile Drive during daylight hours. Studies indicate that raccoons are an intelligent species, prone to remember solutions to a task for as long as three years. It’s no wonder these animals are so easily conditioned to view all humans as a potential resource for food, once one of us has handed over a tasty treat.

Like Canada geese, raccoons can become quite aggressive when expectations for food are not fulfilled. When the need to forage for food within their native habitat is replaced by an abundance of food readily handed off by passers-by, overpopulation inevitably occurs.

Leave the bread crumbs at home, and make sure to properly dispose of your picnic leftovers. Mother Nature will take care of feeding her family just as she has for generations. There are a lot of other fun ways to experience wildlife naturally.

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