By John Bryant, Humane Urban Wildlife Deterrence,

The feeding of wild birds has long been a British institution. Whether it involves setting up a bird table on the patio or hanging peanuts from the clothes line, the feeding of garden birds is supported by a massive bird food industry involving the importation of tons of food from all over the world.

This phenomenon throws up some interesting ethical dilemmas. The UK National Pest Technicians Association reports that feeding garden birds is the single most common reason for garden rat ‘infestations’. In my own work advising on humane deterrence of so-called ‘pest’ species, I too have found that in almost every case the presence of rats is caused by the feeding of birds. The problem is that the hysterical reaction of most people to the sight of a rat, leads to attendance of ‘pest controllers’ with their poison, the inevitable lingering deaths of the rodents, and the risk of secondary poisoning of non-target wild and domestic creatures. According to DEFRA figures, around £10 million worth of anti-coagulant rodent poison is sold in the UK annually. UK Council officials are under a statutory duty to have the rats ‘dealt with’.

Poison seed

Another ethically disturbing factor was reported by the Guardian in December 2006. Crops such as sunflowers grown as bird-food in the US are defended by pesticides such as ‘Starlicide’ to kill birds that raid the crops. In the 1990s hundreds of thousands of red-winged blackbirds in the USA were wiped out by these pesticides, to prevent them eating seeds destined to be exported to bird lovers in the UK and elsewhere!

Many such bird foods are grown as monocrops and 200,000 tonnes of one particular seed (Nyger) favoured by goldfinches and siskins, is reported to be exported from India alone to Europe, the US and Japan. The US insists that the seed is sterilised by heating to 250 C before being imported. It seems therefore that the damage caused to wildlife by pesticides and the expenditure of energy in sterilisation, transportation and packaging, makes the feeding of wild birds by this method difficult to justify as a ‘green’ activity.

Dinnertime dilemma

But what of feeding wild mammals? Surely putting out scraps for an urban fox or a few peanuts for a squirrel is unlikely to have ethical drawbacks. On the contrary I have no hesitation in urging extreme caution to anyone embarking on such a practice. It can on occasions lead not only to catastrophe for the animals, but also to significant human anguish. Think of the consequences of rodents gnawing through electrical cable in houses, etc!

I was called to an open-plan cul-de-sac in south west London by residents complaining that a pair of foxes with half a dozen six-month old cubs, were entering the close each evening, flattening plants, knocking over pots, digging holes in the lawns, and fouling on doorsteps. When I got their neighbours were shouting at an extremely distressed woman because she insisted on feeding foxes on her front step to ensure that they did not go hungry. I gently pointed out to her, that there was nothing to prevent the neighbours calling in pest controllers with cage-traps and guns, and that she should consider either phasing out the feeding or at least finding somewhere close by where the foxes could be fed without entering the cul-de-sac. In the end peace was restored as she opted for the latter option.

I could fill a book with accounts of similar situations where human attitudes towards wildlife have clashed. There is no doubt that close contact with wild animals and birds, particularly in an urban area, can bring not only joy, but also increased respect, understanding and compassion for wildlife to countless thousands of ‘townies’. The problem is the inconsistency and ignorance of us humans. The wildlife that lives near us never knows whether we are going to throw them a burger or a brick, or whether we’re pointing a camera at them or a gun. My advice is, before befriending any wild animals or birds check with your neighbours to see whether they are on the same wavelength. If not you could be signing a wildlife death warrant.

Editor’s note: luckily in the UK and similar wet/damp climes many birds can usually depend on a reasonable supply of food. However in snowy / freezing conditions and during dry spells it is wise to feed them on well-sourced food. VON has an article on birds, bees and butterflies in your garden:

John’s book Living with Urban Wildlife showing how to humanely combat ‘unwanted visitors’, such as squirrels in the loft, or rats in the garden, is available from Animal Aid

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 24 (Winter 2009), p28.