By David Prescott, South County Coastkeeper
I have fond memories of my grandmother setting aside the stale bread for my sister and me to feed the birds and ducks whenever we came to visit. What I didn’t realize at my young age was the harm I was causing, both to the birds and to the local environment. In fact, in 2003, the state Department of Environmental Management passed a regulation making it illegal to feed waterfowl – and for good reason.
Waterfowl, such as Canada geese, swans and ducks, are wild animals. When humans feed them, we change their normal feeding behaviors, and they become increasingly dependent on humans for daily nutrition. What starts out as an enjoyable, and even nostalgic, experience quickly turns into a nuisance situation on a number of fronts.
One of the biggest, and perhaps most surprising, environmental effects of feeding birds is water pollution. A single adult goose can produce up to a pound of waste — yes, we’re talking poop here — every day. This waste contains high levels of fecal coliform bacteria, which is harmful to humans.
As the waste builds up along the shoreline or in a local park, bacteria levels escalate. Rainwater washes the goose poop, and the build-up of bacteria, off the land and carries it to the nearest river, lake, stream, pond or beach, potentially sickening humans swimming or playing in this polluted water. High bacteria levels from goose poop also cause beach and shellfish closures in coastal waters.
Additionally, swans and geese also deposit their waste directly into the water, where they spend much of their time. Bird feces contain high amounts of nutrients that act as fertilizers in the water. This additional nutrient source in the water causes an explosion of algal growth that can deplete the water of oxygen other marine life needs to live and can cause smelly algae blooms that ruin the beach experience for humans.
Feeding waterfowl also affects our local habitats. These birds often congregate in areas where humans are likely to feed them, such as along shorelines and wetlands. When we’re not there to feed them, they are searching for vegetation for nutrition. While this is normal feeding behavior, the abnormally high number of waterfowl leads to overgrazing of shoreline vegetation, which can cause the edge of the bank to erode and become more susceptible to wave action and loss of its buffering properties.
Coastal salt marsh communities in particular are very vulnerable to the grazing effects of geese. Unlike other types of waterfowl, geese will feed not only on the above-ground portions of Spartina alterniflora (smooth cordgrass) but the roots and rhizomes as well, often resulting in the complete removal of large swaths of marsh grass, particularly along the marsh edge. This makes the marsh even more vulnerable to climate change and rising sea levels.
Waterfront homeowners can create and maintain a buffer of native vegetation that will not only help protect the shoreline edge, but will also keep waterfowl off of your property. Too often, homeowners mow their coastal buffer and then later complain about the swans and geese constantly pooping on their lawn.
A natural buffer is important for a number of reasons. Buffers infiltrate rainwater and help to filter and remove pollutants, such as fertilizers and animal poop, coming off the property. They provide valuable habitat for native wildlife. They protect the shoreline from coastal erosion. And finally, they discourage unwanted species, such as non-migratory Canada geese, from feeding on your lawn.
So next time you find yourself out dining along the water, having a picnic lunch at a park or enjoying a day at our spectacular beaches, think twice about sharing your leftovers with our winged friends. Our local waters and beaches will thank you.
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