Stansbury Park residents urged to stop feeding ducks, geese
Written by Alleen Lang

Thursday, 21 December 2006

County health and wildlife officials, as well as longtime residents of Stansbury Park, are crying foul over a tendency on the part of newcomers to regularly feed the wild ducks and geese on Stansbury Lake. Feeding the birds causes them to congregate unnaturally, spreading disease not only in wild waterfowl populations but also potentially to humans.

"That's how avian flu will probably get here," said Lindon Greenhalgh, Tooele County agricultural extension agent.

There are no reports of the deadly strain of avian influenza virus in Utah yet, but it's possible some wild birds, which carry the virus in their intestines, could arrive in the state and infect domesticated birds, including chickens, ducks and turkeys.

While avian influenza usually does not infect humans, more than 200 confirmed cases of human infection with "bird flu" have been reported since 2004 & mainly in Southeast Asia. Most cases of avian influenza in humans are thought to have resulted from direct contact with infected live poultry.

The Utah Division of Wildlife resources have monitoring stations in the marshes around the Great Salt Lake checking for avian flu, said Tom Becker, Tooele wildlife biologist. Although the virus requires a mutation in order to transmit to humans & which decreases the chances of an epidemic & in its basic form it can wipe out large populations of domestic waterfowl.

Feeding waterfowl has created other health and nuisance issues in the past, said Jeff Coombs, Tooele County Environmental Health Director. "We've had to issue public health orders to desist feeding the wild birds," he said.

A pattern develops when waterfowl are fed by humans, Coombs said. Ducks and geese flock to feeding stations and the resulting fecal deposits create health problems.

"I can certainly understand the good folks of Stansbury with warm hearts want to act in a humane way," said John O'Donnell, a member of the Stansbury Park and Greenbelt Service Agency board. "However, providing food for the geese and ducks is generally adverse to the well-being of the community and antithetical to the birds' long-term survivability.

Wild and domestic water fowl have different diseases, but as they co-mingle at feeding stations they pass these illnesses among each other. They also lose some of their natural foraging instincts.

"Wild ducks become more tame ducks," he said. "It is an unnatural situation that can backfire on you."

One of the biggest recent outbreaks among wild ducks is avian collar, a disease that has killed thousands of waterfowl near the marina of the Great Salt Lake, Becker said, noting it is only a matter of time until this disease spreads to ducks on Stansbury Lake.

Stansbury Lake is one of the few places in the county with open water. However, as winter closes in, the lake will freeze and semi-tamed waterfowl will be left with no place to roam but in the backyards of Stansbury Park residents. During the spring, those birds are often joined by ducklings and goslings bought as Easter presents for children and let loose on the lake.

According to the National Audubon Society, feeding waterfowl can lead to overpopulation problems at small urban and suburban parks. Left on their own, ducks and geese will occupy areas that provide sufficient natural food, and when local resources are low or depleted some will move to new locations. However, feeding waterfowl can lead to severe habitat degradation as the birds gather in concentrations beyond what the natural ecosystem can support.

Feeding can also cause waterfowl to lose their natural sense of fear. Unfortunately, in an ecosystem full of dogs, cats, cars and people, the duck that maintains its innate wildness has the best chance of survival. Feeding waterfowl also leads to nutritional problems for the birds. Stale bread, pastries and junk food can contribute to starvation. Ducks and geese are better building their reserves by moving from location to location in search of a healthy, natural diet.

Becker's advice to Stansbury Park residents is to curb their generosity in favor of keeping the lake's ducks and geese wild. "We'd rather see these birds fly and do the things ducks normally do," he said.