A young duckling emerges from the shallow, cool waters of his birth lake and creeps warily through the tall, damp cattails. The sun’s rays begin to dry the previous night’s dew. He shakes the last droplets of lake water onto the ground while following his mother on their morning trek.
Feeding the ducks at your local park isn't all it's quacked up to be. Photo courtesy of Mark A. Patterson
Within moments, he leaves the confines of the water and surrounding vegetation to enter a landscape of freshly mowed grasses and manicured beds. The duckling’s instincts tug at him as if to call him back towards the safety of the lake, but his mother beckons him to push forward with his 10 brothers and sisters.
His entry to this foreign world is greeted with the calls and shrieks of other waterfowl that follow the same ritual each day. The duckling’s pace quickens as he and his fellow birds rush towards the source that drew them here to begin with.
Upon their arrival at this destination, the ducks and geese are greeted with tufts of day-old bread cast out from a creature their instincts warn them not to trust.
Sadly, the result of ignoring their predispositions initiates a transformation from an independent migratory animal to a lifetime resident whose value to the ecological balance is diminished further as each season passes.
This same story plays out daily at lakes, ponds, and rivers across the country. Each year, more birds are affected by well-intentioned park patrons who bring their children, grandchildren, and bread to parks.
At some time, most of us have delighted in feeding ducks at a local pond. This act allows many of us to feel a closer connection to the animal world, while others believe they are supplementing the food needs of the ducks and geese.
After all, no one wants to see an animal starve—or worse die--because there is not enough food. Our own nurturing instincts often overshadow nature’s intended plan for waterfowl populations.
Animal populations are designed to rise and fall with the availability of food, water, and shelter. This process is what keeps populations in check, and allows for species to adapt to changes. The death of animal young is just one way the population is stabilized.
When we intervene and provide additional support to an already vibrant population, we begin to erode those checks and create false carrying capacities. This damage only begins what will be further issues within that population and are then often transferred to human issues as well.
Get The Ball Rolling
In 2010, Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation (GCPR) began an effort to reverse the above issues it had seen occur across its 22 bodies of water. This process eventually became the department’s Comprehensive Waterfowl Management Plan (CWMP).
Developed by staff members with the assistance and endorsement of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources-Wildlife Resources Division and the Gwinnett County Board of Health, the plan was to create a sustainable ecological balance and simultaneously meet the needs of park-system users.
To accomplish this task, staff members set out to compile data and scientific findings to back up the goals and proposed outcomes of this plan. From the start, staff maintained that this plan would be science-based and not fall prey to anecdotal evidence and pervading myths.
Gwinnett County’s CWMP was established with a list of five objectives:
1. To manage the waterfowl in the parks system with efforts towards increasing the biodiversity of flora and fauna species associated with wetlands, ponds, streams, and lakes.
2. To reduce the number of non-native and introduced flora and fauna species found currently within the park systems’ lakes, rivers, and impoundments.
3. To develop an education component to increase public awareness regarding the importance of limiting human interactions with waterfowl, including feeding wildlife.
4. To improve the water quality and cleanliness of the park systems’ water bodies and adjacent lands.
5. To establish a method and criteria to evaluate the success of each site’s result, and launch a long-term collection of the data.
Plan Of Attack
How does an agency handle such a complex issue successfully? In many cases, managed hunts and roundups are not feasible, and alternative forms of population control can be a public-relations nightmare.
The success of the CWMP is based upon the use of an integrated-management plan, which uses several solutions to combat the problem. In no way are these methods listed in any order of importance nor percentage of use.
One option listed below has witnessed both short- and long-term success in its application for a variety of agencies across the U.S., while others listed are more short-term in their success rate.
The first method was to roll out a public-education program. This included the use of mixed media, park signage, public lectures, and local grassroots support from various stakeholder groups. From a website presence to group presentations for all ages, the message of not feeding waterfowl became paramount to establishing a change in behavior. This was needed in order to build towards the second tier of the solution.
Another program created habitat-modification projects that allowed volunteers and staff members the opportunity to work together to reorganize the habitats within the waterfowl-management areas and improve species biodiversity found on-site.
At each site, there has been a goal of reducing single groups and improving the variability of the lake populations.
In some instances, the need for population control is achieved through the process of egg addling. Through this method—following the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s federal guidelines—staff members are trained on the proper way to prevent eggs laid by target species of waterfowl from hatching.
An additional method used by some agencies is a “waterfowl roundup.” In extreme cases where the waterfowl have overpopulated an area or the area has been infused with a high number of non-native waterfowl, professional trappers are contracted to remove a targeted species or an overall population of birds.
Although there are several methods available to an agency, GCPR has yet to employ but a few of these methods. The success of our plan will be measured and determined only after we document the long-term trends within our parks.
The intended outcomes of the CWMP are simple, yet far-reaching. Upon the rollout of this plan, GCPR saw immediate changes in behavior among many of its park patrons. The loaves of bread began to appear in the garbage cans instead of in the lake.
In any cause-and-effect situation, there are both short- and long-term results. Here in Gwinnett County, we are striving for both. We believe this plan will allow the department to improve wildlife biodiversity within the park’s confines. There will be a reintroduction of species not seen in recent years, while reducing the overpopulation of unwanted species.
In addition, the department will reduce the quantity of invasive plants and animals found within the managed zones. This will increase the overall health of the ecosystem while reducing potential risk to wildlife.
Finally, by developing and integrating a large educational component to this plan, we have observed a diminution in feeding wildlife in parks. This in turn lessens the quantity of health issues found along playgrounds and lakesides associated with fecal matter, and also decreases the aquatic and terrestrial contaminants emitted by the waterfowl group. Furthermore, it decreases human vs. wildlife interactions and the potential for injurious complaints.
What we have begun at GCPR can be initiated in any park setting. The reduction of single waterfowl populations and the improvement to our park environs is a focus we should all strive for.
However, this cannot be accomplished without buy-in from all interest groups. From elected officials to the youth athletic association, from staff members to park patrons, everyone has to agree on a positive resolution to the issue. It is through this common goal that volunteers can be assembled, grants and partnerships can be rewarded, and achievement is attained.
Otherwise, all of this is just like water off a duck’s back.
Mark A. Patterson, Ph.D. , is the Conservation Parks District Operations Coordinator for the Gwinnett County Parks and Recreation Department in Lawrenceville, Ga. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.