By David Cronenwett
One of my earliest memories of visiting a National Wildlife Refuge when I was young was a conspicuously placed sign along the trail; “Please do not feed the wildlife.” It’s self -evident message instantly made clear to my nine year old mind. A visitor to any National Park or other agency-managed natural area is quickly greeted with similar proclamations. Feeding wildlife creates dependency, can negatively alter behavior, sicken animals and in some cases seriously endanger people.
Deliberate feeding of wildlife then, is universally frowned upon, or is it? One notable exception of course, is the feeding of wild birds. Long ago, this pastime became a fully sanctioned, culturally enmeshed practice across society. One would be hard pressed to find a Euro-American community that is opposed to feeding birds, which brings avian beauty into the intimate reach of people for study and enjoyment. But as we are learning, even our most innocuous-seeming interactions with Nature can have unexpected results.
An estimated 550,000 tons of bird seed is intentionally set out each year by bird enthusiasts in Europe and North America and only recently have scientists begun to examine the issue. Part of the challenge of studying the ecological effects of supplemental feeding is simply trying to locate control populations without access to such food. Some of the results have been remarkable; aside from confirming a few common assumptions such as the transmission of disease and encouraging fatal window collisions, in some environments feeding birds is altering reproductive behavior and evolutionary trajectory.
A 2010 study in the UK demonstrated that males in some songbird populations with access to feeders tended to delay or completely forgo early morning singing during the breeding season. This behavioral shift has a direct impact on male paternity and overall reproduction since predawn singing is the primary way to attract females. Some ornithologists in Britain now suggest ending all supplemental feeding at winter’s end.
A more incredible example comes from new research in Germany. The Eurasian Blackcap Warbler population is splitting into two distinct groups; those that migrate north to the United Kingdom and those that go to ancestral wintering grounds in Spain. The “English” birds survive almost exclusively on food provided by humans and now exhibit consistently rounder wings and narrower bills better suited to access seed from feeders rather than traditional winter fare of olives and other Mediterranean fruits. Also, because the migration to and from the British Isles is much shorter than that of those wintering in Spain, when breeding season returns, the English birds return much earlier and tend to mate only with their own kind. In about thirty generations of blackcaps, early speciation due largely to human feeding is well underway.
This study raises profound questions about the human role in the natural world. Can the new population of blackcaps still be considered wildlife or do they now fall into the spectrum of human domestication with cats, dogs and cows? Do we now have an obligation to feed this emerging species “forever” if their survival depends on it? There is much we don’t know and haven’t bothered to think about but clearly, new questions raised of how feeding birds affects them is worthy of rigorous study and ethical reflection. We might begin by asking ourselves why we do it in the first place.
Human ecologist Paul Shepard was fond of using the term “The Others” to describe non-human life. Its double-entendre captures the notion that animals like birds inhabit the world with us, but also that their “otherness,” their profound differences from humans, makes them simultaneously unknowable. This paradox is worth keeping in mind when we decide how to interact with wildlife. Our overwhelming desire to be close to birds and other creatures, an impulse stemming from a sense of both kinship and love, may not always be the best thing for them. It is well established by history that we sometimes harm what we adore.
On the other hand, the close observation of birds can often lead to greater appreciation for them and ultimately, their conservation. Perhaps we will end up deciding that in some instances, even with possible deleterious impacts, the overall benefits of feeding wild birds outweighs the negatives. But a case needs to be made for further study and honest examination of the results as well as our own motivations. Indeed, the more we learn about Nature, the more we know we don’t know; so infinitely complex is our world.