Sunday, July 27, 2008

Who'll feed the birds?

One great way to create a controversy is to bring up the idea of feeding wild animals. Signs have been posted in many parts of the country now to either discourage or prohibit people from feeding animals. At the same time, many folks are encouraged to do so at their own residences. Our family embodies this dichotomy, actively discouraging brewers blackbirds and Canada geese from begging at our picnics, while putting up seed feeders, nonnative flowers and sugar water for birds and bugs in our backyard.

So, which of our double standards should we do without? Actually, as I alluded to in a previous post, there is no double standard here. Backyard feeders are simply one small attempt to recreate a semblance of habitat, where once there stood sufficient resources for native birds and insects. Feeding those animals with the least compunction to cohabitate with humans, however, is rarely a re-creation of previously existing conditions.

That gaggle of gangsters hanging out at the local watering hole does not represent the natural condition of previous eons. Geese, for many thousands of years, have known to fear people, while still taking advantage of people's actions on the land. People, for thousands of years, have actively tried to eat geese, as well as to keep them out of our grain fields. However, in recent decades hunting bans in urban areas (a move I fully support) and the park movement (another great idea) have teamed up to create an entirely new phenomenon, and those animals who have succeeded due to their tolerance of humans have taken up residence, or have been planted by people to create a sense of wild or rural in the city. Cowbirds roam coast to coast, canada geese take up permanent residence at California fountains, and eastern gray squirrels happily steal from my walnut tree in the Central Valley. The conditions under which these animals had prospered in the past, taking advantage of new niches created by farmers and ranchers, has been greatly enhanced by eliminating the check that people had on these critters: namely, killing them.

In contrast, backyard bird feeders more often attempt to replace food and water sources for the bird species that had previously lived at the residence. As people become backyard bird feeders, they tend to look for the foods that are most appropriate to the local populations of lbb's, little brown birds, though most are nowhere near that drab. What they find are proprieters who often offer feed to most effectively mimic the native nutrients the birds would have found. They also find that, in order to attract many species, a person has to be quiet or largely absent from the space. These behaviors do not encourage tame behavior from the birds, but actually train the people to give space, and respect, to these tiny tufts of feathers.

Especially encouraging children to be quiet and see truly wild animals, rather than chucking cheese crackers at slightly menacing geese, can help to improve habitat, instill a proper respect and admiration for wildlife, and hopefully add something nice to look forward to at home. Also, you won't have to kick a goose.

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