Begin Ban on Bear Bait with Ban on Bird Feeders

Craig Medred / Outdoors / Anchorage Daily News / February 8, 2004

No doubt, the millions of people who bought that birdseed thought they were doing birds a favor.

They weren't.

"Let's face it,'' confessed Bill Thompson III, the editor of Bird Watcher's Digest, "birds did just fine before we decided, a few hundred years ago, to feed them. Birds do not need the food we provide for them."

Then again, it isn't like feeding hurts birds that much either.

Thompson again: "When bird feeding is done in a conscientious manner, it is also not bad for birds.''

On the scales of good vs. bad, bird feeding appears to be a wash. At least for the birds.

All of which brings us to the bigger questions:

No. 1: Why do we think it's OK to feed birds when we think it's wrong to feed other wildlife?

No. 2: What message does bird feeding send the masses?

America is today an urban society. Consequently, many people have little or no contact with wildlife. The contact they do have is likely to be with birds, quite often around a bird feeder or in a park where they throw crumbs to the birds.

How is someone whose common sense is built on this limited foundation supposed to know that it's bad to feed wildlife?

If you grew up feeding birds in Hartford, Conn., and then moved to Anchorage, wouldn't it seem natural to feed the moose that venture into the yard? It's out there. It looks hungry. You've got some carrots in the refrigerator.

"Here moosey, moosey, moosey!"

Of course, informed readers will know that feeding moose is a violation of state law.

"A person may not intentionally feed a moose (except under terms of a permit issued by the Department of Fish and Game), bear, wolf, coyote, fox, or wolverine, or negligently leave human food, pet food, or garbage in a manner that attracts these animals,'' the law says.

The reason is simple: Biologists do not want these animals getting habituated to human food, because once they do they become less wild. They start hanging around human neighborhoods looking for handouts. Large mammals that do that tend to cause problems.

Birds don't. The worst thing a bird will do is fly into your windows and kill itself. No risks to humans there.

The worst the bird can do is cause some emotional trauma. The dead birds used to make my poor, old grandmother -- an avid bird feeder -- very upset, but never upset enough that she stopped feeding the birds.

She liked to watch them. I'm sure every bird feeder does. There's nothing quite like playing with nature just for the heck of it.

I find it somehow troubling.

If you want to kill an animal for food to eat or fur to wear, I can understand that.

Catch-and-release fishing, a slightly more involved form of playing with nature than bird feeding, is a little harder to deal with, but I can intellectually justify it on the grounds of letting the little ones live while trying to catch the big ones (an old form of conservation) or seeking to preserve the last, cultural remnants of the hunter-gatherer societies.

Catch-and-release lets a lot of people pursue an activity related to the hunter-gatherer activities from which we all evolved, even when there aren't many fish available to be killed.

Bird feeding owns no such connection to the natural world of the cave man.

Watching birds at a feeder is like going to a dump to watch bears or bald eagles. It's unnatural. It's contrived.

Don't get me wrong. I think watching wildlife is a wonderful thing. I think everyone should enjoy watching wildlife. But it should be wild life.

Bird feeders undermine the whole idea. They have more in common with the television than nature viewing. Bird watching appears mainly to satisfy some sort of human craving for a visual spectacle, and if you can put a frame around it, all the better.

By now you've probably figured out that I'm not a bird feeder.
But one of the most traumatic experiences of my childhood did involve a bird feeder. A grosbeak visiting my grandmother's bird feeder hit her window and knocked itself silly. I nursed it back to health, but about a week later it fell over dead for no apparent reason.

I cried for hours.

Eventually, I got over it. I even came to tolerate bird feeders and the people who seed them.

Now, though, my opinion is beginning to shift back the other way. And it's not just because of the birds at the feeders.

From what I've seen in Anchorage in recent years, bird feeders are one of the most prevalent forms of bear baiting in the state. Every spring we bait dozens of bears into town with the seeds, nuts and droppings of bird feeders.

Some of these bears have to be shot. Others get hit and killed by motor vehicles. Seven bears -- five blacks and two grizzlies -- were shot in Anchorage last year. Another three blacks and four grizzlies were struck and killed by motor vehicles.

There has been a lot of talk about cleaning up garbage to keep bears out of town. There has been far less talk about bird feeders. Maybe it's time to do something about that. Maybe it's time for the residents of Anchorage, who really do seem to like to tell the minority of rural Alaskans how to run their lives, to lead by example for a change.

If Anchorage residents are against bear baiting -- and the polls indicate they are -- let's ban the local form of bear baiting before voting on the form practiced in those areas where people are still allowed to hunt. Let's show the rest of Alaska how we're above manipulating wildlife for no reason other than our simple, foolish pleasures.

Let's ban the bird feeder, if for no other reason than there's no need for it.

At best, it's simply a form of toying with wild animals. At worst, it could kill a bird or two, and a bear or two. And we can end that.

Think of this as our chance to show the way -- not only for the rest of Alaska, but for the rest of the country. Just imagine, if we could get everyone to follow our lead, we could free up $2.6 billion for starving people in Africa -- people who would be overwhelmed with happiness if all we did was ship them the birdseed to eat.

Daily News Outdoor editor Craig Medred can be reached at .

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