Wildlife feeding ban is sought

Havre de Grace bill prompted by waterfowl deaths

September 26, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Anyone who's visited a duck pond, bag of bread in hand, knows: If you feed them, they will come.

But in the waterfront city of Havre de Grace, that seemingly harmless ritual soon could be illegal - and punishable by a $100 fine.

A botulism outbreak killed about 150 birds along the waterfront last month - one of worst cases ever in Maryland, which nature experts say was caused by people feeding the hungry animals.

The City Council introduced an ordinance banning the practice Sept. 19, in the face stiff resistance from visitors to the city's waterfront promenade, who tore down signs and threw bread in the face of city employees asking them to stop.

The Harford County city is not alone. Across the nation, cities have adopted or are considering laws to help curb the feeding of wildlife, particularly ducks. An outbreak of botulism that killed hundreds of birds prompted Cheektowga, N.Y., to ban waterfowl feeding, while Palo Alto, Calif., is about to begin an informational campaign - called "Killing them with Kindness" - in hopes of eliminating the need for a law. In Fox Lake, Ill., a 77-year-old retired teacher who refused to stop feeding wild ducks on a private beach was taken to court and could have faced a $500 fine and jail time. She received a $1 fine.

"It makes me feel bad that we have to do that, but we felt it was something that needed to be done," said Havre de Grace Councilman Bernard E. Mills Jr.

Wildlife experts have been preaching for decades that feeding wild animals is dangerous to their health. Human foods such as bread and corn can cause health complications ranging from malnutrition to heart disease to liver problems.

And when that food draws a large number of animals to one place, it can cause diseases to spread much quicker, which was the case in Havre de Grace.

Mills said Havre de Grace's ordinance, which was introduced by Councilman Wayne Dougherty and will be debated at a public meeting Oct. 3, was a last option. The ducks and other waterfowl are a big draw for the city, which features a duck decoy museum near its recently rebuilt promenade.

City employees encountered hostility from people - likely tourists, he said - who were asked to stop feeding the ducks. One angrily dumped a large box full of bread upside down on the ground and stomped away. Another threw bread at an employee.

But officials say the scope of the recent outbreak has made the law necessary. In Maryland, botulism rarely kills as many waterfowl as it did along Havre de Grace's promenade - a gateway to the Susquehanna River and a popular tourist attraction - and it was the ill-advised feeding that made it so widespread.

"That botulism outbreak was one of the worst that we've encountered in the last several years," said Larry Hindman, waterfowl project manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "Usually, the numbers of dead birds picked up in botulism outbreaks are less than 50."

The Chesapeake Bay wetlands and tributaries have had about 20 outbreaks of avian botulism in the past 30 years, according to Grace McLaughlin, a wildlife specialist with the U.S. Geological Survey. In the West, outbreaks have been known to affect thousands of birds, and in rare instances, millions. Locally, birds also have been known to die in much larger numbers from other causes, such as the 35,000 who died from avian cholera in 1994.

Type C botulism, the type blamed for the deaths at the waterfront, is a paralytic disease caused by a toxin found in the soil and transferred by maggots.

In many cases, it can cause what Hindman called limberneck disease, which makes it difficult for the ducks to hold their heads up, or stand or walk. The affected birds were mostly mallards, but also included some Canada geese and gulls. The disease is not dangerous to humans.

Hindman said a few birds probably came down with the disease, which then quickly spread because so many other birds were concentrated in the area to eat the food that was being given out.

High water temperatures and a lack of oxygen in the water - conditions that prevail in parts of the Chesapeake Bay - also likely played a role. "That's the type of environment that this bacteria thrives in," Hindman said. "Some birds got in trouble with the botulism and just happened to be crowded and concentrated."

Dockmaster Gere Frailey said cleaning up the dead birds rattled him and his staff, who normally only see one or two die per month. They had to remove 48 dead birds the first day the problem was noticed, with more than 100 collected during that first week.

"At first you're kind of in shock. After a while, it got to be rather depressing," said Frailey, who has worked on the dock for 12 years. "You see the dead ones, and others on their way out, and you know you'll be back to get them later."

On a recent sunny afternoon, Aberdeen resident April Odham and her 9-year-old son, Kevin, had fed the ducks about three slices of bread before they were approached by three elderly women who informed them of the recent problems.

"We just bought the loaf to come here," said Odham, adding that it's one of Kevin's favorite things to do. "We didn't know. He's done it since he was a baby."

Ann Barber of Baldwin and her husband, Jack, shrugged off the concerns - the ducks like to be fed, she said, and it draws birds many of different shapes, sizes and colors to the promenade. That's something Ann, a budding nature photographer at age 64, said she enjoyed.

"It was just the most beautiful sight," she said. "You'll never get them back unless you're able to feed them."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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