Dear Readers, one of the highlights of the summer holidays when I was a child was heading off to Wanstead Flats to feed the ducks. Off we’d go with a plastic bag full of stale Mother’s Pride, and I remember feeling so happy as the mallards and tufted ducks hurried over to partake of our offerings. I was always less happy to see the Canada geese, with their hard serrated beaks and habit of hissing, and the swans were always very daunting when they waddled out of the water, as I seem to remember them being bigger than me at the time. But I always felt that, by sharing our food with the animals, we were somehow helping them. We were a very poor family, and so we never had much to give them, but at least we were sharing what we had.
Sadly, life doesn’t seem to be quite as simple these days. A friend of mine pointed out that there are signs in Hampstead Heath alongside the lakes, asking people not to feed the waterfowl. I am pretty sure that you are also not allowed to do this at Walthamstow Wetlands. And there are many clear reasons not to through the sourdough into the nearest pond, as the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust points out on their website. However, the issue is not so much feeding the ducks, as the kinds of things that we feed them.
The general message seems to be that bread is fine for ducks, so long as it’s in moderation, and herein lies the rub. During lockdown many people visited their local parks and ponds and became very fond of feeding the birds, so there were much higher volumes of visitors than usual, and most of them were feeding bread. Sadly, it seems that birds can get ‘hooked’ on bread, but if that’s all they eat they lose muscle mass and may be reluctant to forage for their natural foods, such as waterweeds and small invertebrates. It’s like being fed a diet of cake and then being asked to go back to salad – it might be good for us but it’s a bit of a wrench.
Protein inbalance and excess fat can also cause the Angel Wing syndrome in ducks and geese, so bread is implicated here too.
Plus, if there is a lot of feeding of bread an unnaturally high population of waterfowl can survive, which puts them at risk if, for example, a waterside cafe closes, or if people no longer visit (as I imagine has happened a lot as people drift back to work after lockdown). Excess numbers of birds can cause mess from their faeces, and uneaten food can attract rats and create the conditions for algal blooms.
So, what should we be feeding the ducks? The WWT recommends chopped or ripped up green vegetables, wheat grain and specialist foods, while the Canals and Rivers Trust suggests sweetcorn, frozen peas, oats, seeds and cooked or uncooked rice. I can’t help thinking that some of these foods would be a bit expensive for the average family, but lots of people have rice or oats knocking about. And it’s a shame that you can’t buy food for ducks when you buy your coffee at some of these places – it would be a great way to encourage people to feed something more healthy.
So, on balance we need to ease up on the bread, but I do think that for most people, especially children, feeding the ducks is a great way to get close to nature, and to start to be curious about the natural world. If we are a little bit more informed and mindful about our relationships with animals, everyone will benefit.