Feeding bread to birds is a pastime as old as extra bread. But while birds are happy to scoop up your stale offerings, there are a lot of reasons why this is a bad idea.
Do not feed ducks bread. Bread provides no nutrition for them, and they could end up being fat and starving at the same time.
Birdseed, frozen corn or peas (thaw first), oats, and other greens (torn up small so they can eat them) provide the best nutritional value to them. But please do not feed ducks bread. It provides no nutrition, so they end up being fat and essentially starving at the same time.
In other words, the nutritional value of bread is low; a duck or goose might fill themselves up with it, but it’s not providing them with what they need to be healthy waterfowl. Sort of like if you just lived on croutons your entire life. You might stay alive, but you’d have problems.
In the comments, u/Tedwiththehat took a strong stance against the No Bread For Birds tip, quoting a Facebook post from the Swan Sanctuary in the UK, in which The Queen’s Swan Marker, David Barber, inexplicably encourages people to keep feeding the swans:
“There has been a great deal of press coverage in recent months regarding the ‘Ban the Bread’ campaign which is confusing many members of the public who like to feed swans. Supporters of the campaign claim that bread should not be fed to swans on the grounds that it is bad for them. This is not correct. Swans have been fed bread for many hundreds of years without causing any ill effects. While bread may not be the best dietary option for swans compared to their natural food such as river weed, it has become a very important source of energy for them, supplementing their natural diet and helping them to survive the cold winter months when vegetation is very scarce.”
OK, let’s break this down.
Bread is not a bird’s natural diet ever
Barber is correct that giving a starving bird bread is probably better than giving them nothing at all—maybe. But most of us are not trained to recognise a starving bird, and a bunch of geese rushing towards you at a pond where everyone feeds the birds is not an indication that they are starving. It just means they know that’s where they can get food, which is an additional problem to feeding them; as the Canadian Wildlife Federation warns, they lose their foraging instincts:
Ducks naturally eat a nutrient-rich diet that may consist of insect larvae and other aquatic invertebrates, small fishes, amphibians, as well as seeds and aquatic plants. Bread and similar products such as chips, doughnuts, popcorn and crackers provide very little nutritional value.
Ducks that are regularly fed bread can become malnourished, aggressive towards one another, may lose their foraging instincts and can lose their natural fear of people.
Even if the nutritional issues are minimal (they’re really not), the overall effect on the animal is bad.
Leftover bread is also bad for them
If a bird lives in a pond or lake where they are commonly fed bread, other issues may arise. Bread that doesn’t get snapped up by clever beaks doesn’t just evaporate into the air. There’s no clean up crew. It settles into the water; the CWF also mentions that this can lead to a build up of algae in their environment. ABC Radio Perth reported on an even grimmer circumstance in which the higher nutrient level in the water created a bacteria in the soil that lead to avian botulism:
Nicole Davey, environmental coordinator at Belmont Council, said feeding bread to birds contributes to higher nutrient levels in the water, which in turn leads to an increase in the soil bacteria that causes avian botulism.
“So when the birds eat snails and worms that are in the mud, they become infected with the bacteria, when releases a toxin that causes them to become paralysed, and eventually they die,” she said.
You’re not just messing with the bird’s diet—you’re messing with their whole eco-system, and the other creatures great and small who are living there, too.
It causes overcrowding
Birds aren’t actually evolved to consume food in a screaming mass at your feet. As Mother Nature Network reports, competing over crumbs is stressful for them:
Ducks and geese naturally find habitats that offer enough food, but handouts can lure large crowds to areas that wouldn’t normally support them. Natural foods are also widely scattered, letting birds eat in relative privacy, while competition is often fierce and stressful at artificial feeding sites.
They also create far more poop in a big group! Which adds to some of the environmental issues outlined above and increases the chances of spreading disease. And when it comes to teaching their own ducklings to forage as normal, they might become too bread-obsessed to properly do so, preventing the next generation from eating as nature intended.
It might be causing Angel Wing
There is a condition among birds, primarily ducks and geese, called Angel Wing, which causes a bird to grow a malformed wing. There is a lot of debate about whether or not being fed junk food and bread is the primary reason for this issue, because there isn’t an enormous amount of research. However, the waterfowl most commonly found with the condition are usually in close proximity to humans, as One Green Planet reports, in areas where they are fed bread from a young age. They’re usually birds with severe nutritional deficiencies. Is it really worth keeping a bird from flying just to feed it crusts?
What you should feed them instead
There are some birds that are already trained to expect food from humans; they’re not flying south for winter, even though they’re supposed to. Or maybe you just think the ritual of feeding wildlife is something you can’t give up, even though almost all wildlife foundations say you should.
In that case, you can feed water birds food bought at an actual pet store, like duck pellets. You can also give them whole corn kernels or oats, if you want to fatten them up, or defrosted carrots and peas. If you have leftover greens, like lettuce, those will be a hit if chopped into bird-mouth-manageable pieces. But please, consider the circumstance of the animals first. You might think you’re just one person meditatively feeding an animal, but there’s a long line behind you.