It’s a well-intentioned and very natural instinct: to offer bread to ducks or scatter seeds for songbirds. Our strolls through New York City parks and other greenspaces invite interaction with nature and urban wildlife, while pictures on social media and movies portray scenes like this as fun and idyllic. Yet, without knowing it, we’re often causing more harm than good, especially when it comes to feeding animals.
Sunny Corrao, an associate wildlife biologist with NYC Parks, has seen the signs: Ducks, turtles, and fish congregate expectantly in ponds and other water bodies; squirrels jump up on benches and birds get close to people; cracked-open peanut shells and sunflower seeds litter the ground around the Pond and the Harlem Meer in Central Park—all indications that people are regularly feeding animals that live there.
The cost to our fellow creatures over time: malnutrition, higher risk of disease, an unnatural and potentially dangerous trust in humans, and loss of their natural instinct to forage and hunt, as well as pollution and other habitat damage.
“It’s as if you’re feeding these animals Twinkies all day,” Sunny says of common items like bread, rice, cereal, and crackers that are tossed to the wildlife. “They’re filling up on the food but they’re not getting the nutrients they need. On top of that, they learn that there’s no need to expend the extra energy to forage.”
Big food dumps can cause even bigger problems: bacteria growth in water and disease transmission among animals in feeding clusters. “I know people don’t want to waste food and have good intentions,” says Sunny, “but large food dumps are bad in urban parks.”
NO NEED TO FEED
One of the most severe consequences of feeding ducks and geese is angel wing, a mostly irreversible growth deformity that causes wing feathers to stick out so the birds can’t fly or fully tuck in their wings. This could mean starvation or even death, especially for migratory birds, once water bodies freeze over and food sources become scarce in the winter.
Waterfowl accustomed to a diet of bread, crackers, and other human food are especially vulnerable to angel wing (it can also be congenital) because feasting on what is essentially high-carb junk food deprives them of the nutrition they would normally get from foraging for their natural food sources (plant matter for waterfowl like geese, along with insects, worms, and other animal matter for ducks).
In the case of the family of goslings that developed angel wing in Morningside Park in spring 2022 (later seen stopping traffic as they waddled with their parents to a new home in Central Park), plans to move them to an animal sanctuary upstate had to be scrapped when they tested positive for a highly contagious and harmful avian flu. The state mandated euthanasia as a result.
Helping to protect our feathered friends is remarkably simple: Don’t feed them or any other animals in the parks. This simple act gives nature the opportunity to work its magic. It might be hard to do when big eyes and fluffy feathers are beckoning at your feet, but when you stand back and give animals their space, you’re actually helping all wildlife. Central Park and other city greenspaces, in fact, are actively managed so that the habitat itself naturally provides animals with the nourishment they need.
“There’s definitely enough food source,” says Lisa Kozlowski, the Central Park Conservancy’s Assistant Manager of Natural Areas. Her team of staffers and volunteers maintain four areas of Central Park—the Ramble, North Woods, Hallett Nature Sanctuary, and Dene Slope—that exemplify what can happen when healthy habitats are allowed to flourish. “We see a lot more life—a lot more wildlife.”
With native plants as a foundation, insects and pollinators like butterflies and bees, birds, bats, and other animals arrive, increasing biodiversity which in turn makes the overall environment more robust, resilient, and sustainable. By understanding and focusing on how things naturally grow and work together in certain habitats, says Lisa, the Natural Areas team strives to create a more balanced, self-sustaining ecosystems. Volunteers are essential to the Conservancy’s effort: every week they help remove invasive plant species, clear trash, and assist with plantings.
“If you plant it, they will come,” says Tod Winston, a birding guide and Urban Biodiversity Specialist at NYC Audubon. “Native plants host a lot of insects that birds eat in the spring and have a lot of fruit the birds eat in the fall.”
Central Park, he notes, is a vital place for millions of migrating birds that pass through the City in the spring and fall, as well as for its year-round residents.
“We’re right in the middle of the Atlantic Flyway and in the middle of a big city, so it’s a big green oasis that’s really attractive to birds,” Tod says. “It’s also full of the things that birds need. There are a lot of different kinds of habitats here and natural habitats with rich native plant life. For that reason, along with all the great water sources, Central Park is really great for birds.”
THE HAZARDS OF HUMAN ACTIONS
With so much sustenance naturally available, human handouts and careless behaviors disrupt the cycle and imperil animals. Dumping large amounts of food like bread, seeds, popcorn, or crackers, for instance, or piling up trash around receptacles instead of carrying it out of the Park, attracts rats and encourages animals like raccoons and pigeons to cluster together in one place, a prime opportunity for transmitting disease and parasites.
Decomposing food on the ground and in water bodies also degrades the environment, exposing ducks to moldy bread and bacteria as they dip their beaks into ponds to feed on aquatic plants or animals. Animals with compromised immune systems from poor diets must also endure the stress of competing with other wildlife and overcrowding that an abundance of human food causes, making them even more vulnerable to disease.
The dangers of the items we leave behind can’t be underestimated—and feeding animals isn’t the only way our actions can harm them. In early 2023, a swan was spotted with a large fishhook through its neck in a canal in Lindenhurst, New York. By the time rescuers were able to reach her, there was a lot of infection and dead tissue around the wound, says Lauren Schulz, Director of Rehabilitation and Operations of the nonprofit Wildlife Center of Long Island (formerly known as Volunteers for Wildlife).
“It can take days or weeks to get animals into care,” she says. And any rescue effort—even if successful—is distressing to animals, on top of the injury itself. The Lindenhurst swan required two weeks of rehabilitation before she could be released back to her territory and mate.
The small staff at Wildlife Center of Long Island, a wildlife hospital and education center in Huntington, sees around 2,300 cases of animals with injuries or otherwise in need (such as orphaned babies) each year, says Lauren. About 95 percent of the cases are directly related to human impact. This includes injuries resulting from ingesting human food, hazardous trash and fishing gear, car hits, and window collisions. Lauren’s work isn’t limited to Long Island, either; her team receives approximately 1,000 calls about injured wildlife each year from the five boroughs.
Tragically, calls about animals—especially ducks, geese, and swans—getting tangled in fishing line or snagged on hooks are all too common in areas where people fish, Lauren says. Lines, lures, plastic bags, rope, and string also get picked up by osprey on Long Island as they collect sticks and other materials to make their nests; the organization receives calls every year about young osprey getting their feet or wings tangled in human detritus that ends up in nests.
“Even the most responsible fisherman will have times where their hooks or their lines will get caught, and then they cut the line or the line breaks,” she says. “Other times it’s more careless, where people redid their line and left it on the bank of the river.”
Fishing gear, accidental litter, and plastic wrappings all pose threats to animals. And the situation certainly isn’t unique to Long Island. Birds in Central Park easily get tangled in the strings of improperly disposed items like masks, kites, balloons, or fishing wire, and turtles have been spotted in the Lake and Meer with hooks through their mouths.
Even balloons released into the air end up floating down into ponds and waterways, where “unfortunately some aquatic animals see them as food,” says Sunny. Anything that people leave behind in urban parks poses a potential threat: “I’ve even seen birds eat cigarette butts.”
HOW HUMANS CAN HELP
Paying attention to your trash can help prevent animal injuries and maintain a healthier environment for all. Sunny urges people to make sure their trash goes into bins or, if a barrel is full, to go the extra distance to find one that isn’t. If you see something already on the ground, consider picking it up before it costs an animal their life or limb.
One hazard all too familiar to New Yorker eyes is what she calls “the melting ice cream cones of garbage cans,” where overflowing trash cascades over the edge and piles up on the ground. Any food waste will attract scavenging rodents or raccoons (which, Sunny notes, aren’t dangerous to people if given the proper distance but might hiss at you to stake their claim on food. And it’s important to remember: It’s completely normal for a healthy raccoon to be out and about at all hours and in all seasons as they've adapted to stay awake when food is most readily available.) If needed, carry your trash out of the Park altogether.
With 42 million visitors to Central Park each year, our impact—and potential damage—adds up. Even seemingly innocuous things like going off the pavement or well-worn paths can mean trampling on fragile topsoil, eroding a vital layer of the ecosystem.
Fortunately the reverse also holds true: Small and consistent attention to our actions—from not feeding animals and respecting their space to minding our trash, keeping pets on leashes (it’s all too common for dogs to attack wildlife), and staying on designated footpaths—goes a long way toward encouraging nature’s built-in processes for feeding and supporting the wildlife, plants, and natural beauty that offer us so many health benefits. The rewards are huge.
“It’s this big, cyclical thing,” says Sunny. And it’s not just for us and the animals we encounter in the parks—it’s the hundreds of species that call New York City home, from the geese, ducks, squirrels, and turtles to hawks, bats, rabbits, and groundhogs.
By understanding what they need—and don’t need—our best intentions can be fully realized.
Luna Shyr is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Atlas Obscura, the Associated Press, and The Wall Street Journal.
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