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.