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PAWS Mailing Address:
PO Box 1037
Lynnwood WA, 98046

PAWS Street Address:
15305 44th Ave W
Lynnwood, WA 98087

February 2007   

Kevin Mack

The Cost of a Free Meal
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

In many Seattle area parks you will see "Do not feed the birds" signs. These signs are put up for good reason. Not only does feeding tend to lead to high concentrations of birds, and subsequent complaints about their droppings, it also can be hazardous to a bird's health. I have always associated the health hazard part of this equation with the assortment of foods that people tend to feed to birds. I have personally seen people offering bread, popcorn, potato chips, French fries, bits of scone and a variety of other items to ducks, geese, gulls, pigeons, sparrows and even a completely disinterested grebe. While all of the birds (except the grebe, who would've preferred a nice fish) eagerly snatched up the free meals they were being offered, I doubt that any of these foods were particularly nutritious for them. Indeed, most of them aren't even particularly nutritious for humans. But short of the occasional bird with a mass of sticky bread stuck in his or her esophagus, I have never thought that feeding birds would lead to immediate physical harm. As I realized after making the acquaintance of Glaucous-winged Gull 07-0042, I guess it all depends on where people are feeding the birds.

On January 20, a man was feeding birds along the Edmonds waterfront near the train tracks. He was doing so because he enjoyed being close to them, not because he intended them any harm. He watched in horror as two sub-adult gulls squabbled over a piece of the food he had offered, oblivious to the train that was barreling toward them. Both gulls were struck by the train and were left lying on the ground after it had passed. The man scooped them up immediately and rushed them to PAWS. They were recorded in the PAWS database as patient numbers 07-0041 and 07-0042.

Gull 07-0042 rests in a flight pen.
Upon arrival at PAWS, gull 07-0041 was in the kind of condition you would expect for an animal that was struck by a train. With multiple severe injuries including broken bones, dislocated joints and internal trauma, the only help we could offer him was a humane release from his pain. Gull 07-0042, however, fared better. Blood was visible in his mouth indicating some internal trauma, and he was in shock, but he had not suffered any major skeletal damage. He was given subcutaneous fluids and medications to help stabilize his condition, and he slowly became stronger and more alert.

A few days after he was admitted, gull 07-0042 was ready to move to an outdoor pen with a large pool. He refused to eat on his own at first, but this was more likely due to his discomfort with the unfamiliar surroundings rather than the traumatic way his last free meal had ended. He was tube fed to maintain his weight, but he eventually took an interest in the fish that were being offered to him and started to feed himself. He was then moved to a large flight pen for the remainder of his stay.

In the flight pen, gull 07-0042 flew beautifully. His only difficulties came when he was on the ground as he had a slight limp in his stride. He seemed to be favoring his right leg, most likely due to some residual soreness from the impact with the train. The limp resolved over the course of a week, and the gull's stamina increased as well. He protested loudly, and did his best to resist as I captured him and placed him into a carrier on January 30. I imagined he would be far less resistant when I opened the carrier 20 minutes later at the beach.

As I walked toward the beach at Brackett's Landing Park in Edmonds, the cardboard pet carrier in my right hand was clearly the subject of much curiosity for the other humans that were present. I recalled a time some years ago when, having just completed a grebe release at Mukilteo Beach, I was approached by a woman who asked in an angry tone, "You aren't dumping cats out here are you?" After explaining the situation to her and pointing out the grebes who were happily swimming just offshore, she became very excited and thanked me for releasing the birds. I thanked her for her willingness to approach strangers and question them to ensure that no animals were being treated inappropriately. She told me to, "Keep up the good work!", and I told her to do the same.

Gull 07-0042 burst out of his release carrier and flew south towards the ferry dock.
Just before I arrived at the stretch of beach that was to be the gull's release site, I passed a woman who was sitting on a bench facing the water. She noticed the carrier and looked at me with an inquisitive eye. I identified myself and told her the story of gull 07-0042. She asked if she could watch the release, and I invited her to do so. She stood next to the bench and I walked down to the water's edge, carrier in hand. Once their carrier is open, gulls often hop right out and into the water, swimming away while keeping a wary eye on their former captor. Gull 07-0042's exit from the box was much more dramatic.

As I opened the carrier, two long slender wings burst up and out, and with one powerful downstroke gull 07-0042 was airborne. Gaining speed and altitude, he flew south toward the ferry dock. Other gulls in the area flew in close to investigate, possibly believing that his haste meant he had found some tasty morsel with which he was trying to escape before it was stolen. Finding no food to steal, they seemed to quickly lose interest.

After circling overhead twice, the gull headed north.
When the gull I had known as 07-0042 reached about 200 feet in altitude, he made two very large circles overhead. As he completed the second circle he was heading due north, and that is the direction in which he continued. I don't know where he was headed, or whether or not he even had a destination in mind, but he appeared to be confident in his choice as he flew in a very straight line until he disappeared from sight. I returned to the woman by the bench who was amazed at what she had just seen. She had many new questions about gulls and I did my best to answer them.

All rights reserved. 2007 Progressive Animal Welfare Society

A Northwest leader in protecting animals since 1967, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) shelters homeless animals, rehabilitates injured and orphaned wildlife, and empowers people to demonstrate compassion and respect for animals in their daily lives.

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