WORDS: Scott Heiman
Feeding wildlife poses health risks to humans and animals alike.
It’s estimated that Australia is home to more than 380 species of mammal, 830 types of birds, 4000 types of fish, 300 types of lizards, 140 types of snakes, two species of crocodile and around 50 types of marine mammals. Eighty per cent of these are endemic to our ‘little’ island home.
That’s quite a list. So it’s no wonder that we like getting outdoors.
But did you know that more animals have become extinct in Australia in the last 200 years than in any other continent? This estimate includes 23 species of bird, 78 types of frogs and 27 types of mammals. And things don’t seem to be getting any better, given that 360 of our animal species are today considered threatened.
I’m pretty sure none of us would like to see ourselves contributing to this decline when we head bush with our rigs. But as our population grows, the probability also increases that humans and wildlife will come into contact — and that contact is rarely mutually beneficial. When we congregate around camping areas, boat ramps, car parks and picnic tables, some travellers tend to throw their scraps in the direction of the nearest cute furry or feathered scavenger. But, just remember, while they may seem hungry, feeding wild animals simply isn’t a good idea.
The high sugar, salt, fat and preservative levels in our food may cause native animals and birds to become malnourished — just like it affects us.
A New South Wales national parks’ ranger told us he’d seen a bird fall from the sky as though it had been shot. Lab reports found it had died from a heart attack. Very little natural food was present in the bird’s stomach, and its cholesterol levels were 10 times higher than those deemed suitable for the species. These facts, combined with the bird having been found in the vicinity of a major camping area, led specialists to conclude that the death was directly related to the bird having been routinely feed chips by campers.
‘Angel wing’ deformity is a more common adverse effect that’s seen in ducks, geese, swans and waterfowl. It’s caused when birds are regularly fed white bread, popcorn or similar resulting in a diet lacking in adequate calcium, manganese and vitamin E as well as excess carbohydrates. Minced meat, often thrown in the direction of kookaburras, magpies and butcherbirds, contains too much phosphorous and too little calcium, producing nutritional imbalances and severe deficiencies that can cause deformities in the birds’ beaks and bones.
Less visible, but no less real, are the potential impacts of our interference on wildlife social structures and population densities. For instance, it wouldn’t surprise you to know that, when regularly hand-fed, the populations of currawongs and ravens increase. But have you considered that, when the campers go home, the available food decreases leaving them to prey on smaller birds instead? This natural response, compounded by an increase in numbers, causes an imbalance in species distribution in the affected geographic area. Likewise, when populations of crimson rosellas increase, other birds and mammals are at risk of being displaced due to the rosellas taking over the available tree hollows as nests.
Other detrimental effects of feeding
wildlife can include: birds and small mammals becoming tame and, thereby, more vulnerable to attack by dogs, foxes and cats; and migratory birds becoming dependent on the artificial food source and staying where
they are, placing unnatural demands on
If you’re not yet convinced to leave the wildlife alone, the following reasons may hit a nerve.
Routinely-fed wildlife eventually becomes a nuisance. It’s that simple. At night, possums and gliders come out to forage on their natural diet of leaves, insects, fruits and flowers. If they get used to being fed by humans, they spend less time foraging and more time raiding your tent or kitchen. So, too, do foxes, cats and quolls, among others, so make sure your tucker box is locked. Wild animals may also follow the scent of food or improperly stored garbage to a cabin, campground or your camper, which can lead to damaged property. So make sure you properly secure your garbage.
Semi-tame wild animals can also pose a real safety risk. For one thing, there’s no guarantee that an animal or bird knows where the food stops and your fingers begin. Further, they may come to expect to be fed by people and become aggressive when they are hungry. In 2014, on Fraser Island, for example, at least three adults were attacked by dingoes and hospitalised. And aggression is not limited to canines. When kangaroos and wallabies expect to be hand-fed, they sometimes attack people in their quest for food. Remember, Skippy has sharp claws and can kick hard enough to make you think you’d been hit by Bruce Lee. So imagine the impact a kangaroo could have on your kids. And keep clear of goannas which are opportunistic scavengers that feed on carrion. A scratch will be extremely painful and also prone to infection.
Also, don’t forget the poo. Attracting water birds to areas that you want to use for swimming or to launch your boat will artificially concentrate their faeces and contaminate the water. This can result in increased bacteria levels (including Salmonella). This is a really easy way to make you and others sick and may force authorities to close that campsite, boat ramp or barbecue area that you were looking forward to using.
It was once said that ‘nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little’. What we’re saying here is that you might not single-handedly be able to reverse the decline in our biodiversity, but you can certainly make a meaningful contribution by treading lightly.
So take photos, keep your distance and help keep our wildlife wild.
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