"Snacks? Snacks? SNACKS!" Flickr/Jim Trottier

Is tossing some bread to the cute little ducks really mucking stuff up?

Dear CityLab: I like to take my kid to the local park and feed the ducks. Is this okay? Are we actually hurting the waterfowl?

Oh, dear reader: you’ve stumbled upon one of the great wildlife management controversies of our time. There are actually two schools of thought on feeding wildlife (including our friend the duck). The right answer is at least partly dependent on where you live. Let’s break it down.

First option: don’t feed wildlife, ever

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service (APHIS) officially discourages humans from feeding wildlife, which includes “ducks, geese, gulls, raccoons, deer, squirrels, or coyotes.” There are a few excellent reasons for this. First, just like you, animals require very specific diets. Sure, you think the day you’re feeding the ducks is just their well-deserved cheat day, but someone else might come along tomorrow and make that a cheat day, too. The result, according to Kevin McGowan, a researcher with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is “digestive problems and vitamin deficiencies.” And you should feel bad for making ducks sick.

Second, it’s not great for animals to get too accustomed to people—for people’s sakes, too. Animals that lose their fear of humans can become aggressive, nipping tiny child fingers in the rush for more crackers, for example. They can become nuisances or even hazards by congregating in large numbers in busy places, or along roads. And when younger ducks see they can just get food handed to them on a proverbial silver platter, their foraging skills can diminish, and they become worse at finding vittles by themselves.

Finally, attracting large numbers of ducks to one small area, like a pond, can have public health consequences—for the waterfowl. Water can quickly become clogged with duck poop, and disease spreads much more quickly among concentrated populations. In 2014, nearly 50 ducks in Leicester, U.K., died of avian botulism, a disease officials linked to the local fondness for gifting the mallards with lots of bread.

For all these reasons, it is officially illegal to feed wildlife in national parks, at pain of a maximum six months in prison and/or a $5,000 fine. Some towns and cities have their own anti-feeding ordinances, too, so check out the laws where you live.

Second option: feed ducks good things

“You can make a decent argument that you want people to like wildlife,” says McGowan, the Cornell Lab researcher. “People are getting more distance from the natural world and we really would like to take advantage of bonding moments that might arise, like feeding birds.” This is particularly true in urbanized areas, where people tend to spend less time hanging in the wild. Maybe your duck-feeding cherub could grow up to be a mallard researcher, or at least a person who regularly stands up for wildlife causes. Your snacking assistance may be justified—but only if you’re tossing waterfowl the right things.

If you’re going to go ahead and feed ducks, McGowan advises, do not go the classic route and throw bread. “You wouldn’t feed your kid just white bread,” he says—the ducklings don’t deserve a mono-diet, either. Ducks are actually omnivores, so your choices go well beyond straight carbs. Here are the best options, according to McGowan:

  • Veggies, especially peas, corn, or lettuce
  • Bird seed
  • Oats
  • Tiny critters like earthworms or mealworms

Keep in mind that if you see a critical mass of people already hurling worms the ducks’ way, it may not be the best time for your own interaction with nature.

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