Is feeding the ducks helping or hurting them?
Anyone who has driven past Knute Nelson Memorial Ballpark in Alexandria knows of the year-round visitors near the field.
Ducks and geese make the waters of Lake Winona their home through the summer when it is not uncommon to have to stop for them as they cross the road.
Many of those geese fly south for the winter, but a large portion of the ducks, particularly mallards, stick around the small patch of open water that rarely, if ever, freezes right off of Willow Drive. Mallards can handle cold conditions, so until a food and water source runs out, these birds are finding no reason to leave.
Many people make it all the more inviting for the waterfowl to stay by feeding them all year long, but should they be?
"We don't have a really strong stance on it," Jason Strege, the assistant wildlife manager with the Glenwood Area Department of Natural Resources, said. "It's not necessary to feed them. Feeding will keep them in the area longer. That area is always open, but if they ran out of food or it got so cold that that area froze up, they would migrate. They have a strong migration instinct, so basically what it's doing is keeping them in the area longer."
Some bird experts and wildlife advocates have pointed to overcrowding that can lead to high competition for food and disease as reason to not feed waterfowl.
The ducks by Knute Nelson Ballpark, and in many areas like it where feeding waterfowl is common practice, are very comfortable around humans. It is not uncommon for them to come within a couple feet of anyone who has food to offer.
Generally, the feeding of wildlife is not recommended by state game agencies. Animals that learn to depend on humans can become nuisances or safety risks. It can also do more harm on the animal itself if it were to become too domesticated and not able to feed itself when needed.
"We're not usually too concerned that they'll become too domesticated, because their instinct is so strong," Strege said of the mallards. "I know people feed them in the summer too, but they're pretty well adapted to take off. You can run into that more with mammals. It's not a real big concern to habituate them to feeding. If it got cold enough, if it froze up, their instinct would kick in to move."
Strege said the ducks do not need to rely on people alone for their diet.
"They're going to fly out into the fields, especially with the lack of snow cover," he said. "They'll fly out to the fields and get what they need."
Strege added that it is probably not best to stop feeding right now this late in the winter.
"That goes with any bird feeder," he said. "If you're going to start doing it, probably continue doing it throughout the winter."
If a person is going to feed them, it is important they know what to give the waterfowl. Bread is not the answer. A lot of waterfowl have a natural diet that consist of a mix of plants, seeds, insects and crustaceans.
"It is important not to feed them junk," Strege said. "Corn is probably one of your better feeds. A lot of people feed bread, which has almost zero nutritional value for waterfowl."
Ducks and geese that fill up on bread can become malnourished because they do not have the desire to forage for the nutrients that their bodies need.
Especially for younger birds, this can cause growth problems, including a condition called Angel Wing. Here, deformed wings develop during growth that result in the wings sticking out and up from the body, making it difficult or impossible to fly. These symptoms are often evident in some of the birds near Knute Nelson Ballpark.
People who feel the desire to feed ducks are encouraged to use healthier alternatives to bread such as corn, lettuce, peas, oats, seeds or rice.