Don't Feed the Bears! But Birds OK, US Research Shows
reno, nevada —
Don’t feed the bears!
Wildlife biologists and forest rangers have preached the mantra for nearly a century at national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, and for decades in areas where urban development increasingly invaded native wildlife habitat.
But don’t feed the birds? That may be a different story — at least for one bird species at Lake Tahoe.
Snowshoe and cross-country ski enthusiasts routinely feed the tiny mountain chickadees high above the north shore of the alpine lake on the California-Nevada border. The black-capped birds of Chickadee Ridge will even perch on extended hands to snatch offered seeds.
New research from University of Nevada scientists found that supplementing the chickadees’ natural food sources with food provided in feeders or by hand did not negatively impact them, as long as proper food is offered and certain rules are followed.
“It’s a wonderful experience when the birds fly around and land on your hand to grab food. We call it ‘becoming a Disney princess,’” said Benjamin Sonnenberg, a biologist/behavioral ecologist who co-authored the six-year study.
But he also recognized “there’s always the question of when it is appropriate or not appropriate to feed birds in the wild.”
State wildlife officials said this week that they generally frown on feeding wildlife. But Nevada Department of Wildlife spokeswoman Ashley Sanchez acknowledged concerns about potential harm are based on speculation, not scientific data.
The latest research project under the wings of professor Vladimir Pravosudov’s Chickadee Cognition Lab established feeders in the Forest Service’s Mount Rose Wilderness and tracked populations of mountain chickadees at two elevations — both those that did and didn’t visit feeders.
“If we saw increases in the population size or decreases in the population size, that could mean we were hurting the animals by feeding them,” co-author Joseph Welklin said. “Our study shows that feeding these mountain chickadees in the wild during the winter has no effect on their population dynamics.”
Sonnenberg said he understood concerns about supplementing food for wild creatures at Tahoe, where bears attracted to garbage get into trouble that sometimes turns fatal. The bears may ultimately be killed because they no longer fear people.
FILE - A Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist and a dog run off a released black bear southwest of Carson City, Nevada, Aug. 9, 2013. Available food can make bears less naturally fearful of people, which can ultimately spell trouble for the bears. (John Axtell/Nevada Department of Wildlife via AP)
“Should you feed the bears? Of course not,” Sonnenberg said. “But given the millions of people that are feeding birds around the world, understanding the impact of this food on wild populations is important, especially in a changing world.”
Mountain chickadees are of particular interest because they’re among the few avian species that hunker down for the cold Sierra winters instead of migrating to a warmer climate. They stash away tens of thousands of food items every fall, then return to the hidden treasure throughout the winter to survive.
“When they come to your hand and grab a food item,” Sonnenberg said, “if they fly away into the woods and you can’t see them anymore, they are likely storing that food for later.”
Sanchez said the Nevada Department of Wildlife’s concerns include observations that the chickadees are exhibiting a level of tameness around potential predators — humans — which could make them more susceptible to other predators in nature.
She also said in an email the number of people hand-feeding the birds at Chickadee Ridge has increased significantly in recent years, “which means the odds that somebody will feed them inappropriate food items or handle them inappropriately has also increased.”
Only food that’s suitable
Sonnenberg added in an email that the researchers are “not directly advocating for or against the feeding of chickadees at Chickadee Ridge.”
But “what our results do show is that this extra food does not cause chickadee populations in the Sierra Nevada to boom (increase to densities that could be harmful) or bust (decrease dramatically due to harmful effects),” he wrote.
Anyone feeding the birds should only provide food similar to what is found in their natural environment such as unsalted pine nuts or black-oil sunflower seeds, never bread or other human food, he said.
“And always be respectful of the animal,” Sonnenberg said. “Behave like you’re in their house and you’re visiting them.”
Published on 2023-02-10