For decades it’s been a common practice to toss extra food and fish scraps to birds and other animals. The general mindset of most people in this situation is, “I don’t want to waste food, so I’ll give it to other animals so they can eat it and it’s not wasted.” Something that most people are unaware of however, is the fact that doing so actually causes harm to these animals much more than it helps them. This is especially true for pelicans and other seabirds that frequently visit docks, marinas, and other fishing hot spots. I’d like to review and discuss a few reasons that cover how hand feeding pelicans can be detrimental to their health.
To put it bluntly, it’s illegal to feed wild pelicans directly, or to discharge fish and other food in order to attract them to a specific area. Individuals caught doing so can be charged with a second degree misdemeanor with fines of up to $500 and sixty days in jail. (i)
Pelicans have evolved to hunt and consume small, soft-bodied bait fish, and they are not equipped to digest large bony fish. This can create several problems for pelicans that attempt to consume larger fish that they wouldn’t normally eat. This includes filleted fish that are tossed to them. The sharp, pointy bones of larger fish carcasses can pierce the soft tissues of pelican pouches, throats, and stomachs. This can lead to several unfavorable situations. Puncture wounds in a pelican’s pouch can make hunting difficult, and lead to infections later on. Fish carcasses can also become lodged in the throats of pelicans, causing internal bleeding and making the ingestion of normal food nearly impossible by blocking the path to the bird’s stomach. This can lead to malnutrition and eventually starvation. Much like the throat, bony fish carcasses can also cause puncture wounds and internal bleeding in the stomach, but an even larger problem can also arise. The acid in the stomachs of pelicans isn’t strong enough to break down the bones of bony fish, and the bones can end up remaining in the bird’s digestive system indefinitely. These bones can be a breeding ground for bacteria and other pathogens that can make pelicans ill while also inhibiting the normal digestive process.
We’ve discussed this before (click here to read one of our previous blog entries about why feeding bread to birds is very bad for their health), but birds should not be eating food that’s meant for human consumption. Human food lacks the nutritional value that birds and other animals require as art of their normal diets. Without proper nutrition, wildlife can develop a host of health issues including exhaustion, lethargy, confusion, disorientation, and the inability to function normally.
Hand Feeding vs. Bird Feeders
A question that I’m often faced with is, “If feeding wild animals is bad for them, then why do people use bird feeders?” This is an excellent question. The main difference between using feeders and hand feeding animals is the method by which the animal obtains it’s food. When an animal takes food directly from a human, it’s being reconditioned to accept food from humans. When this new mindset is established for an animal, then reconditioned animals may begin to think that every human has food for them. This can lead to animals attacking humans in attempts to get food from the humans, or in many cases the animals will refuse to forage for food as they normally would. This can leading to malnutrition and eventually starvation. It can also cause animals to enter human areas that are unsafe for them, such as parking lots and highway medians. To prevent reconditioning, feeders force birds to forage and search for food as they naturally would. This allows the animals to stay wild, but we get the added bonus of being able to observe them from a safe distance.
While I’d like to give most people the benefit of the doubt when they toss fish to pelicans, doing so causes major problems for these animals. To be a better environmental steward and help us to reduce the number of injuries to birds and other wildlife, here a some simple tips:
1. Place filleted fish carcasses into properly labeled receptacles, or use properly marked “fish tubes” to dispose of fish carcasses.
2. Ensure that garbage cans and other receptacles are sealed tightly to prevent wild animals from foraging around human areas.
3. Aim to prepare just enough food that is required to satisfy everyone that you are cooking for. Most chefs over prepare and cook too much food for group meals. This can generate a lot of excess food that is thrown out and wasted. By making better estimations on the required amount of food, we create less waste, and we don’t feel poorly about tossing out a smaller amount of excess food.
4. Observe birds from the safety of your own home with the use of bird feeders and other non-reconditioning methods.
These steps may seem to be extremely basic, but following them can make a huge difference in the way that we interact with wildlife, and the way that wildlife interacts with us.
Ian Martin, Education Coordinator, 2016
(i) Florida Animal Law