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Many people like to go and feed the ducks at the ponds and lakes near where I live. It's lovely that they want to interact with and appreciate these wild animals. Unfortunately, they nearly always feed bread. I imagine that they are unaware it can in fact cause more harm than good throwing bread in these situations, particularly when in large quantities. It is unhealthy for the birds to eat, as well as the fact that leftover bread encourages rats and algal blooms. (I'll avoid a long discussion here as it's not crucial to the question, but if you are interested, there's more detail about the reasons in this article.)

I tend to take bird seed or similar to throw to the ducks. I'd like to encourage others to do the same, but would feed awkward about doing so. How can I politely convince people whom I see feeding the ducks to bring more suitable alternatives in the future?

I want to make sure that I do not come across as negative or confrontational - as I said, the motives behind feeding the ducks are good, and besides, if I come across as too evangelical I'm sure it is less likely to be effective in persuading anyone.

Note that some local spots now carry signs asking people not to throw bread, but they are often not very obvious, or else people ignore them.

  • <comments removed> If you have an answer, please post it below, thanks. – Robert Cartaino Dec 16 '17 at 23:11
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If you want to be an agent of change, you need to provide the solution in addition to highlighting the problem. Just to illustrate my point, it took me more than one reading to realize you suggested bird seed as an alternative. Your message of the solution was that deeply lost in the negatives of bread.

Stop talking about how bad bread is for ducks and start talking about how great bird seed is for ducks. Forget the negatives of bread, focus on the positives of bird seed; that bird seed prevents algal blooms, that bird seed promotes healthy duck digestive systems, etc.

That said, you'll quickly hear a few problems with bird seed, and you'll probably need to have canned answers to address them to make your message more effective. I'll illustrate a few that I can think of, and you should think of others.

  1. I buy bread constantly, but I have no idea where to buy bird seed.

  2. I can eat the remainder of my bread.

  3. I can throw my bread more effectively than scattering seed.

  4. Birds can see my bread more effectively than noticing I'm throwing seed.

  5. Ducks tend to eat small fish, fish eggs, worms, snails, grass, algae, frogs, and insects, and bird seed.

You don't need to have answers for all o these questions; but, having answers for the ones you imagine are likely will bolster confidence in your ability to sustain a conversation, which will lower your barrier for starting it.

With a positive start, like "I'm using bird seed, have you tried it, it's great!" and a bit of upbeat information, you might sway a person or two. With a "you're doing it wrong" kind of a approach, you'll probably get the feedback you expect. Your reasonable expectations are likely why you're having difficulty sending your message.

Some people like to improve. Instead of focusing your ire on people who throw bread, be a proponent for throwing seed, and see if you can get them to follow your lead. Take heart that even one person throwing seed in the future is not throwing bread.

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  • +1 Thanks for the thoughtful answer! I realise you were just playing devil's advocate, but if anyone is curious about the questions you raise: 1 and 2 - You don't have to use specialised bird seed, there are lots of foods that are reasonable e.g. oats, rice, or even vegetable peelings. 3 - If you scatter a number of small items, it will be more evenly distributed among the birds, rather than all being gobbled by the biggest bully present. 4 - Birds have great eyesight, shouldn't be a problem. 5 - Not sure what the problem is here? – user2390246 Dec 16 '17 at 21:25
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    @user2390246 Thank you very much for the kind words. The key is that you must be comfortable bringing up birdseed as a better alternative, and sometime comfort might be found in preparation. People like positive people, and I think accentuating the positives of bird seed will go a lot further than a "negatives of bread" approach. Mentally visualizing the conversation, including the obvious push-back, can give you the confidence to spread your message more effectively! – Edwin Buck Dec 16 '17 at 22:45
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    I don't see how a purely positive approach is supposed to work. If you just present it as an alternative, without showing why bread is bad, I wouldn't see a reason to switch. – CodesInChaos Dec 17 '17 at 17:04
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    It shouldn't take more than one reading to realize that he mentioned bird seed as an alternative. There's a dedicated paragraph (2nd) for it and part of the paragraph is highlighted in bold. – Mars Dec 17 '17 at 18:44
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    @CodesInChaos I've suggested that bird seed is better is a more effective approach. If someone doesn't see "X is better" to mean that "Y is worse" then I guess they'll not see a reason to switch. – Edwin Buck Dec 18 '17 at 15:44
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I have to have this sort of conversation with customers/guests where I work on a pretty regular basis...

In my case it's usually a much broader "Please don't feed the animals" there are quite a few mischievous trash-pandas and occasional crafty foxes who can get really bold when they get accustomed to being fed...

We also have a few species like gopher tortoises, manatees, and a smattering of birds that are protected/endangered that people can be fined/jailed for feeding or molesting.

Once we had a pretty big problem with a flock of ducks that would chase people looking for food, occasionally even trying to follow people inside the buildings.

The conversation usually goes something like this:

Me: Please don't feed the animals or leave food unattended and keep all your doors and windows closed.

Them: It's just one cracker, what harm can it do?

Me: Well, the animals can get accustomed to being fed, and they start to get really bold after that... To them it's not just one cracker from one person, it's a few dozen snacks from a few dozen different people who didn't see the harm.

Them: Why the doors and windows though?

Me: I wouldn't want to have to chase a raccoon or fox out of your car or building... They're pretty intelligent and persistent when they smell food.

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    I'm not sure what sort of actionable solution this offers to the question? – Mitchell Faas Dec 16 '17 at 14:27
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    @Mitchell Faas it's a frame challenge. Rather than "don't feed bread", it's "don't feed at all". – apaul Dec 16 '17 at 14:29
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    Yes, we have signs for ducks, and now signs that say don't leave seeds because it attracts rats. Sometimes the genius solution (seed will be OK) has side effects, rats. Just think how ducks made it through 10's of thousands of years, without you. – Rob Dec 16 '17 at 17:27
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    @Rob We are making it harder for many animals... though ducks aren't really being affected. – wizzwizz4 Dec 16 '17 at 20:21
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    This is an interesting slant, but for me it goes too far. I can't imagine a positive reaction to going up to some kids with their grandparents and telling them "don't feed the ducks, they might get too bold". Plus I think it's counterproductive to be discouraging any interaction whatsoever with wildlife. I prefer the gentler, more positive suggestions of some of the other answers here. – user2390246 Dec 16 '17 at 21:14
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You have a really good analysis - too many people want to help and start out with confrontation and not interaction.

You have the right starting point by bringing along birdseed - rather than demanding change, you are the change.

Keep in mind that you won't turn this ship quickly. And if you go about it too aggressively, you'll just annoy people and they'll avoid you. I'd suggest starting small. I'd imagine that you folks gather in certain places to feed the ducks and that's where you can start. Let the conversation begin and it can be about anything. After you develop a certain rapport with someone, offer them some of your birdseed or other duck-healthy food. That should give you the opening to explain why you aren't feeding the ducks junk food.

There's a great article at Popular Science about feeding ducks: https://www.popsci.com/feeding-ducks-bread

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Actually, feeding ducks some bread isn't harmful. It can be likened to feeding a person hamburgers: It's simply not very nutrient rich. The growth of algae and vermin is only an issue when too much bread is given and the left overs are left behind. In moderation, feeding bread is fine.

The reason I bring this up is because this allows you to have an "in" on a conversation, simply asking if they're there often, feeding the ducks. How often? If it's once every few months, there's no reason for them to change their behaviour. It is not harmful to the birds or the ecosystem.

Now if they're feeding the ducks every other day you should probably try to convince them, but now you're already in a conversation and you can start asking for their motives: Do you always bring bread? If they usually bring seeds, there's no issue. If they buy bread for feeding because they like seeing the ducks eat, now your path to convincing is pretty clear: Did you know that bread is actually pretty harmful? and you can explain the problem without judgement. As you remarked yourself, their actions are almost surely well-intended. So your goal shouldn't be to convince them to use seed. Instead, you should aim to create awareness; they'll step over to seeds themselves.

This comes down to a more general idea behind persuasion: Don't try to sell someone something they don't need nor care for. Instead, listen to what they want, what their motives are and supply them with a solution that achieves those. e.g Don't sell them a pen because it's a great pen, sell them a pen because they'd like to write their name.

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    Even if a single person only feeds the birds bread once a month, it accumulates if lots of people are coming and doing the same. – user2390246 Dec 16 '17 at 21:28
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    The problem is, you can't trust the ducks to tell you the truth about how much bread they've already eaten. They'll tell you they are starving every time. – barbecue Dec 16 '17 at 23:32
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If you do not want to be confrontational:

  • Give them a complement.
  • Suggest an improvement.
  • Let them ask for more details if they so choose.

For example:

It's great that you want to feed the ducks. I might suggest using seeds instead of bread next time, as that's healthier for them.

Note that I didn't say "It's great that you're feeding the ducks", as that complements their bad action - I instead focused on their good intention (although that subtle difference in phrasing might be lost on a lot of people).

If they get particularly defensive or rude, they probably wouldn't be particularly receptive anyway, so you might as well end the interaction there by avoiding responding much further and not going into too much detail if you do. The above should give them enough information if they choose to investigate this on their own at some later stage.

If they respond with a sincere question (e.g. "is bread bad for them?"), you can go into more details, but try to strike a balance between "you're doing harm" and "you're not doing that much harm" (since the goal is to get them on your side, not to make them feel bad), for example:

Yeah, while bread is okay occasionally in small quantities, in larger quantities or given more regularly (such as when many people are doing it), it interferes with their regular diet since it fills them up and doesn't have much nutritional value.

You can also offer some alternatives...

There are also alternatives which are also healthier for them. I already mentioned seeds, but X, Y or Z could also work.

or expand on the suggestion you gave:

Any type of birdseed should work. Stores X and Y should sell some. I think there's a store X right down the street there.


If it's a particularly common problem, this might be an uphill battle and it might be more beneficial to speak to the park about the idea of putting up a sign or selling seeds nearby or trying to address the problem in some other more general way.

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Give alternatives to feeding bread. Don't focus on "don't do X". For example speaking to people or having a sign like "Please don't feed the ducks bread." is all negative with no positive. An alternative "Please feed the ducks birdseed instead of bread." is more positive and provides encouragement. As an additional action make a few small bags of birdseed. Randomly offer bags to people feeding bread.

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