It's a popular pastime, but state biologists say feeding ducks at parks around Alaska can actually hurt them in the long run. 

Biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are tracking a group of around 1,500 mallards in Southcentral Alaska, which should be flying south to warmer climates, but are staying in Anchorage instead. 

"If they're coming down and then they find food here, there's really not a lot of motivation for them to keep flying," biologist Tasha Dimarzio explained. "So they just stick around and really, if they weren't getting these extra handouts, and there's not a lot of natural food in this environment in the winter, they probably would leave."

Staying in Anchorage is causing frostbite on the feet of some birds and human food has taken an even worse toll on others. Dimarzio says Bird Treatment and Learning Center, a rehabilitation program in Anchorage, has reported several dead mallards. Necropsies revealed their digestive systems were blocked. 

"So they weren't able to actually process this food that people were feeding them," Dimarzio said. 

In the area of Spenard Crossing, Dimarzio says she's seen everything from tossed salad to chocolate cake. "You know, it's not really good for us, let alone a bird that needs to migrate."

In late 2018, the Anchorage Waterways Council lauded a turnaround of water quality at Cuddy Midtown Family Park

“We considered it a human-caused problem because of the additional food that was being offered,” Jeanne Swartz with the Department of Environmental Conservation said at the time. “And the fact that [the birds] have no natural predators, there was no reason for the ducks or geese to ever leave.”

Swartz called it an incredible success story. She said geese and ducks still visit the pond, but they don’t tend to stay or nest there as they have in the past. She said there are other benefits, too.

“People are much happier when they are dog-walking or visiting the park because they don’t have to be concerned with so much goose poop,” Swartz said. “And we just have a better, a healthier environment. Healthier for us, healthier for the birds, even healthier for dogs.”

Fish and Game has tagged hundreds of birds with red and yellow bands on their feet. If you see one, Dimarzio says her team wants to know so they can track their lifespan. Information about banded bird sightings can be sent to tasha.dimarzio@alaska.gov or by calling (907) 267-2527.

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