For years, Rehoboth Beach has discouraged feeding the wild animals that call the city’s freshwater lakes home. Now, there’s actual evidence as to why – a gosling was euthanized after developing so-called angel wings because it ate too much human food.
During the commissioner comment portion of the June 19 commissioner meeting, Commissioner Richard Byrne said volunteers from the Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research had noticed significant health problems among the goslings in the city, particularly near Lake Gerar. He said some of the goslings had started to develop angel wings – a condition where their wingtips stick out from the sides of their bodies.
“The cause of that is poor nutrition, which means they’re being fed lots and lots of bread,” said Byrne, who is also a member of the city’s animal issues committee. “Human carbohydrates and human sugar.”
In an email July 3, Lisa Smith, Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research executive director, said the Newark-based bird rescue received one angel-winged gosling from Rehoboth. She said the rotation of the wingtips was 180 degrees, which is too severe to treat. In milder cases, she said, angel wings can be treated by splinting the wing into the correct position and providing a properly balanced diet.
However, said Smith, “This gosling was humanely euthanized.”
Smith said in the past four years, Tri-State has received five Canada geese goslings with angel wings. She said she didn’t know if it's ever been a problem in Rehoboth before.
Smith said, in birds, bread can expand in their stomach, making them feel full and reducing their motivation to forage for more nutritionally complete foods. She said bread can affect a bird’s crop, which can lead to fermentation and then yeast infections. The crop is the muscular pouch in the esophagus that temporarily stores food until it proceeds through the bird’s digestive tract.
“No matter how you slice it, bread is bad for birds,” said Smith.
Humans feeding waterfowl isn’t just happening at Lake Gerar. Byrne said he walks his dog across Turtle Bridge on the other side of town daily and he always sees people feeding the wild animals.
“We have four signs there. I don’t know what else we can do,” said Byrne. “People lean right on the signs and throw bread in. Not only is it harmful to the environment in a lot of ways, now we’re seeing actual physical harm to these young geese.”
Smith said if a person is absolutely compelled to feed waterfowl, there are much healthier alternatives – including corn, duck pellets, lettuce and other greens, fresh or frozen peas, oats and seeds.
In addition to the angel wings and other dietary issues, Smith said there are other issues with feeding wild waterfowl. She said regular handouts can lure large numbers of waterfowl into an area that would not normally support them, which can lead to disease outbreaks.
Smith said lots of waterfowl in one area also means lots of waterfowl feces; an unnaturally high concentration of feces can degrade water quality, particularly in smaller ponds. Overcrowding can also cause aggressive behavior as the birds compete for handouts, she said.
“This aggression may be directed at other ducks and geese, but it can also be directed at people,” said Smith. “Unfortunately, it is not unusual for waterfowl that have become habituated to being fed by humans to behave aggressively toward people to try to get free food.”
Instead of feeding the geese and ducks, Smith encouraged people to organize a trash cleanup and removal of invasive plants to allow for native plants to thrive, which provides natural food and shelter for wildlife.