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What's Wrong With Feeding the Gulls At the Beach? Actually, A Whole Lot...

Feeding gulls and other beach birds is harmful to the birds themselves, other species, and possibly humans.

On a recent visit to Clearwater Beach, I saw a sign by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission urging people to protect beach-nesting birds. 

Among the common-sense requests (including keeping dogs off the beach) was the following admonition:

"Gulls and crows eat our eggs and babies. Please don't feed birds on the beach!"

We have probably all done it at some point - throwing handfuls of cracker crumbs into the air at the beach and watching the gulls suddenly gather and swoop like a scene out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Tourists often enjoy this seemingly innocent pastime, sometimes scrambling to catch photos of gulls pecking morsels out of a child's outstretched palm. But those cute gulls have sharp bills, and I've seen them draw blood from people's hands.

While many newcomers to our beaches might not be privy to the consequences, I think most locals have caught onto the fact that feeding gulls and other birds at the beach is a bad idea.

How many times has your lunch been dive-bombed at your favorite outdoor restaurant by a gull who added insult to injury by depositing the remains of its last meal on your head?  This behavior is not the bird's fault; it is the result of human behavior that encourages birds to seek out humans as food sources.

But I wonder how many people, locals and tourists alike, realize just how harmful feeding the birds is to the birds themselves as well as to other wildlife? 

For example, feeding birds at the beach attracts large hordes of gulls and crows--many more than would gather in their natural states - and these birds in turn can do grave damage to some of the more sensitive bird species.

Gulls and crows are predators and will raid the beach nests of other birds and feed on their eggs and chicks. With the nesting habitats of such birds already limited by human activities such as beach development, marauding predators like gulls and crows can further imperil their fragile populations.

Also, causing gulls and other birds to gather in such large numbers is bad for the birds themselves. Large numbers of birds concentrated in one location increase their chances of spreading infectious diseases like avian pox.

Feeding the birds can also cause them to lose their fear of humans, making them aggressive and even dangerous. I have seen gulls steal bags of chips out of beachgoers' hands and even dive-bomb a little kid's ice cream cone, reducing the child to tears and the treat to a runny glob in the sand.

Fear of humans is healthy for birds, of course. When birds lose their natural fear, their brazen behavior can put them in harm's way of cars, boats, dogs, and humans who consider them a nuisance.

What's more, human food simply isn't healthy for birds, as it does not contain the essential nutrients birds need. Additionally, when birds become accustomed to eating human food, they also become vulnerable to ingesting garbage, fish hooks, and other items they mistake for food that can injure and even kill them. 

So the next time you are at the beach, enjoy watching the birds from a respectful distance and please don't feed them. It's better for the birds and for us. 

Plus, I think birds are a whole lot more interesting to watch when they are feeding on their natural prey, not on the discarded remnants of someone's grouper sandwich.

For more information on why it's not a good idea to feed the birds at the beach, check out the University of Florida's IFAS Extension Service's publication on this issue.  

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Jeanne Murphy August 15, 2012 at 09:38 PM
Thank you for sharing this wonderful information! As you said, not feeding waterbirds is better for both our human and wildlife residents, as well as our Florida visitors.
Laurie Meggesin August 15, 2012 at 10:29 PM
Thanks, Jeanne!
Sheila C. August 16, 2012 at 01:19 PM
Thanks for a great, informative article! Last Sunday, We sat on the beach next to a tourist who insisted on feeding the gulls, even after being asked repeatedly by a parent sitting near him whose two children had been bitten by gulls swooping down to take their lunch. He STILL wouldn't quit. Incredible!
Michael D. August 16, 2012 at 01:20 PM
Tourists just don't understand. This is just a destination to them, not a home.
Laurie Meggesin August 16, 2012 at 01:42 PM
Sheila and Michael, thanks for helping to spread the word. In my experience, most folks will do the right thing once they understand the consequences, but unfortunately, there are always a few bad apples out there. I am so glad that the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission's signs are now posted at the beach; they are also a great resource to point out to folks to help them understand the consequences. Visitors who enjoy the abundance of waterbirds and other wildlife on our beautiful beaches will, for the most part, do their part to protect them once their awareness grows. As for the folks who just won't listen to reason: we can always take a photo of their activities and simply let them know that we plan to show it to a local authority. Sometimes that's an effective way to convince them to do the right thing when all else fails.
Sahara August 20, 2012 at 06:34 PM
Now can we take this one step forward and ask our full time residents and especially our seasonal visitors to stop feeding ALL birds, cats and other animals from the wild. They think they are animal lovers when in fact they do more harm to egrets, raccoons, squirrels etc. with their selfish attempt to be loved by the animal kingdom.
Bryan August 23, 2012 at 12:32 PM
Seems to me that we all should have more important things to worry about
Laurie Meggesin August 23, 2012 at 01:25 PM
Bryan, I do understand your point; why care about a bunch of birds when we are facing so many challenges, economic and otherwise, right? But I believe that being good stewards of the environment is good for humans on many levels, including our local tourism economy. Pinellas' local bird population directly attracts tourism dollars to our area. A study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that "birders," or birdwatchers, added $82 billion to the U.S. economy in 2006 alone, Pinellas County is a popular destination for birders, with 411 bird species reported locally and several markers along the Florida Birding Trail. It therefore makes good economic sense to protect such "eco-services" that support our local tourism industry and resulting jobs. Humans thus benefit directly from environmental protection, in this and many other ways.
Opinionated...sometimes August 23, 2012 at 02:07 PM
Because when these people are on vacation they don't care what they do to our environment!!!!!

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