If you’ve been scrolling straight past all the Brexit news and onto the more interesting stuff, as I have, you might have read the viral news story about a woman who left a sign in her local park, encouraging people to feed bread to the ducks again. And just like Brexit, it seems that it has ignited quite a heated debate! Going down to feed the ducks with the two ends of a loaf of bread is an age-old British tradition that I and many of you will remember quite fondly as a child. Unfortunately for bird lovers, in the last few years or so, many people have been arguing that bread shouldn’t be fed to ducks. However, as with all great debates, there has been a bit of a U-turn, and now people are arguing that maybe we SHOULD be feeding ducks again.
So who’s right? Should we be feeding ducks bread, or is it too unhealthy for them?
Why Feeding Ducks Bread Can Be Harmful
Ducks and other waterfowl have quite varied diets, and will happily eat anything from plants to small snails – they can digest bread, but as it is usually deficient in essential nutrients that they need to survive (especially white bread), they don’t gain much by eating it. And by filling up on stale bread, ducks will eat less of their normal diet that has the essential nutrients in. Think of it like if you ate huge portions of chips, with no room for anything else – apart from getting quite large, you would also be lacking a number of essential vitamins and minerals, which can lead to health problems. The same is true for ducks and bread.
For young ducklings, bread is not just nutritionally lacking, it may be harmful too. Too much calorific bread deficient in nutrients means a growing bird’s wings can grow faster than the bones underneath – this can cause a condition called ‘angel wing’, where their deformed wings make it difficult to swim and fly. It is not certain that this condition is linked to bread consumption, but there is some evidence.
What about the pond?!
Finally, bread in ponds may be harmful to the pond itself, and everything that relies on it. Ducks don’t have bottomless stomachs and if there is any soggy bread left uneaten, it tends to sink to the bottom of the water and rot. This provides energy for microscopic plants, called algae, to grow, covering the pond – you may have seen this as a thick green carpet covering the surface of a pond. This overgrowth can remove oxygen from the pond, resulting in a lot of the life in it dying. A dead pond has no food for the ducks to eat, so they have to move away or risk starving.
Why Feeding Ducks Bread Might be Okay
If you’ve ever fed ducks before, you’ll know how voracious they can be – many ducks are fairly reliant on humans feeding them bread, and as the woman who put up the poster pointed out, some have been starving because of the recent discouragement. The morality of making ducks reliant on bread is an argument for another day, but there are clearly some large populations that rely on people throwing their crusts into the pond. If everyone stopped feeding ducks bread, some would inevitably starve, especially over winter when food is scarce.
Furthermore, as mentioned above, bread is not inherently bad for ducks – it is not poisonous, so small amounts of bread will not cause ducks to suffer. Even young ducks that are at risk of angel wing (and remember that it is not certain how much bread leads to angel wing) have to consume a large amount of bread to become deficient in nutrients or deformed. Again, think of the chips; we’ve all had huge portions of chips and not been able to eat for the rest of the day, but the vast majority of us will not do it regularly. It’s having big bags of chips, or a whole loaf of bread, every day that causes people and ducks to become unhealthy.
What’s the Verdict?
The reason why this argument is still ongoing is that there is no simple answer! Too much bread can be harmful to ducks and their environment, but not having any is causing some ducks to starve. So what should you be doing? Small amounts of bread every now and then are not too risky for ducks, and people should not be shamed because of it. Make sure it is only a little and that all of it is consumed. However, try not to do it too regularly, because if everyone fed their local ducks every week, the problems that caused the argument in the first place will still be very common.
What should you feed ducks?
For anyone who loves feeding ducks, there is a better solution: ducks are not fussy, and there are a number of other foods you can feed ducks safely, regularly, and without worrying for their health. Some good duck foods include oats, seeds, lettuce, commercial duck pellets, and vegetables. Bring these next time you visit the ducks, and you can be sure they are getting the nutrition they need. Over winter, extra food is especially welcome, so wrap up warm, bring a bag of oats and go feed some ducks!