by Chris Carlson
The Central Canal is one of Midtown’s defining features. An engineering marvel, migratory bird flyway, wildlife habitat, and historic artifact of the 19th-century nationwide canal-building boom, there’s no wonder it attracts our attention. Kids of all ages flock to the Canal with bread for ducks and geese. Communing with nature and watching waterfowl waddle up to meet you is a popular pastime in Broad Ripple and other areas near waterways and ponds.
Don’t get your feathers ruffled, but the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) says hand-feeding wild waterfowl must stop. According to the DNR website, “Individuals and communities should adopt and strictly enforce ‘No Feeding of Waterfowl’ signs and ordinances.”
Megan Dillon, urban wildlife biologist with the DNR’s Division of Fish & Wildlife, says DNR doesn’t provide the actual signs but instead works with localities to craft what sign can say and to provide guidance for educating the public. “It’s not enough to say ‘don’t feed the waterfowl,’” Dillon said. “You have to say why. It’s not a self-interested request. We’re making that request in the best interest of birds. We don’t want to feed waterfowl because it’s bad for waterfowl.”
Jill Hoffmann, executive director of the White River Alliance and their initiative Clear Choices Clean Water, agrees. “Humans feeding ducks and geese is a significant and real problem for central Indiana’s water quality. Don’t feed the geese! It’s not healthy for them, us, or our water.”
OUR DRINKING WATER
The canal carries 60 percent of Indianapolis’ drinking water from the headwaters at White River in Broad Ripple to Citizens Energy Group’s (CEG) treatment plant near 16th Street. Lured by tasty handouts, Giant Canada geese (Branta canadensis maxima) congregate on the banks. Each goose can poop up to 28 times daily, producing 2 to 3 pounds of noxious waste per bird—some of which finds its way into the canal. According to Sarah Holsapple, CEG’s media relations coordinator, “Citizens is well-equipped to tackle this and more serious pollutants from White River and elsewhere. Our water is safe to drink.”
Scrambling up and down for food, ducks and geese can quickly denude and erode the bank; sediment washes into the canal. “Citizens has addressed these issues,” Holsapple said, “by installing native plantings west of the College Avenue bridge to stabilize the banks and protect against erosion.” In addition to providing habitat and food for other wildlife and pollinators, the plantings appear to be successful in reducing goose “herds” in the area. But along the canal at Alice Carter Place Park and east of College Avenue, problems persist.
AN URBAN NUISANCE
In 2010, great numbers of ducks and geese stripped vegetation from the canal banks adjacent to Guilford Avenue, causing serious erosion while waddling up and down for food from well-meaning humans. The bank was stabilized and replanted, but within a few months, the new plantings had disappeared at the hands—or feet—of waterfowl accepting handouts.
Encouraging waterfowl to rely on human intervention upsets the balance of nature. Huge numbers of them have begun to crowd out other wildlife species with which they would normally share the ecosystem, and that reduces biological diversity. When geese eat landscape plants, they rob other wildlife of important habitat.
According to Neil Myers, principal with Williams Creek Consulting, an ecological engineering firm providing long-term water sustainability solutions, “Canada geese present an urban nuisance along the canal and other water bodies within Indiana.” Myers said many geese “no longer migrate but simply overwinter, encouraged by the availability of open water and easy food. Their excrement leaves excess nutrients––nitrogen and phosphorus––in our canal, helping diminish quality of life for other wildlife and encouraging growth of undesirable aquatic plant species such as weeds and algae.” Eutrophication––the enrichment of a body of water with nutrients––rapidly depletes the water of oxygen, damaging the aquatic environment and killing other organisms, such as fish and turtles.
BIRD JUNK FOOD
DNR’s Dillon says hand feeding give the birds an artificial sense of abundance, which disrupts migration and leads to an overabundance of birds. “Waterfowl being fed are much more likely to transmit illness to one another since they’re spending so much more time in close quarters.” She acknowledges that they’re flocking birds, but noted: “The distinction is they’re feeding at localized locations and that’s what makes the difference for disease transmission. They’re not grazing across a larger landscape.”
The Canada goose’s natural diet includes seeds, plants, and insects. Human food lacks nutrients and roughage that birds need. “When we provide bread or other types of human food to birds, we’re not giving them healthy food,” Dillon said, “It’s bird junk food.”
HUMAN HEALTH HAZARDS
Geese and ducks leave feces and molted feathers, both of which are human health risks. Their feces contain a variety of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites capable of infecting humans, including several that can cause gastrointestinal problems. Histoplasmosis, a potentially life-threatening infectious disease, is caused by inhaling spores of the fungus Histoplasma capsulatum, often found in bird and bat droppings.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, histoplasmosis is endemic in the United States, with a higher proportion of people infected in central and eastern states, especially in the Ohio and Mississippi River valleys. The fungus grows best in soils high in nitrogen, often due to excess waterfowl feces. Birds can carry the fungus on their wings, feet, and beaks. Disturbances of infected soil cause the small H. capsulatum spores to become airborne and carried easily by wind over long distances.
The pathogens Cryptosporidium, Giardia, E. coli, and Campylobacter have all been found in goose droppings, and can cause infection and disease in humans, notably diarrhea and gastroenteritis. The CDC recommends that workers in areas frequented by Canada geese should avoid contact with droppings.
For those of us who enjoy the pleasant areas that line the canal in Broad Ripple, this raises a big public health concern. Children sit near the banks or step in feces as they get closer to ducks and geese to feed them. Adults stroll, dine, sit, or sip near fly-covered, bacteria-laden “goosh.” Why create a walkable community only to contaminate it?
OTHER HAZARDS AND CONFLICTS
Geese are especially aggressive during breeding and nesting–March through June–and can seriously hurt passersby. They have been known to rush and nip at humans who get too close to nests and goslings. DNR’s Dillon calls it “unnatural behavior.” “Understand that a friendly duck or goose is not good for anyone. It invites a conflict,” she said. “It might look sweet—a bird running up to you—but it could be a big problem. Geese are big and can be very aggressive. By feeding them we’re inviting them to come closer, when we should encourage them to keep their distance for their own best interests.”
Active grazers, geese are particularly attracted to lawns near apartments, homes, and offices. A single goose eats 3 to 4 pounds of grass daily. The resulting excrement can render yards, sidewalks, and patios unfit for human use.
COMMUNITY ON BOARD
Michael McKillip, executive director of Midtown Indianapolis Inc., said, “This is an important issue to individuals, businesses, and institutions in Midtown. I am certain they will be interested in coming together to discuss and explore collaborative ways to prevent increases in problems caused by hand-feeding waterfowl.”
Mark Wolf, president of the Broad Ripple Village Association, stated that BRVA supports efforts to reduce waterfowl fouling along the canal and advocates contributing to the “unique village character” of Broad Ripple by preserving and enhancing the Central Canal. The organization’s 2017–18 goals seek to build upon opportunities––access, beautification, preservation of natural environments––provided by the canal and towpath. Residents, businesses, and the BRVA work diligently to maintain a beautiful, clean, safe, and healthy Village. However, too many waterfowl can thwart those efforts.
M. J. Meneley, chair of Reconnecting to Our Waterways’ canal committee, said that while his committee has not specifically discussed the issue of hand-feeding geese and ducks near the canal, their “goal is to ‘reconnect to our waterways,’ and an important component of that connection is education.” They want to ensure that the canal is maintained as a recreational and aesthetic community asset for many years to come and that visitors to the canal behave responsibly.
“Indy Parks and Citizens Energy Group are developing a working agreement related to trail management,” said Ronnetta Spalding, spokeswoman for Indy Parks. According to CEG’s Holsapple, the agreement covers both parties’ expectations about use of the towpath (paved and unpaved portions), identifying it as a recreational trail/greenway and detailing Indy Parks’ responsibilities for maintaining it as such.
Dan Considine, Manager, Corporate Communications for Citizens Energy Group said that since geese are not creating problems for the water utility, Citizens would not be the entity posting the signs. “If the Indianapolis Department of Public Works or community groups, such as the Broad Ripple Village Association, would like to post signs such as the one from Mishawaka, we have no objection providing they check with us concerning exact locations.”
On March 22, Mayor Joe Hogsett launched the “It’s My City” initiative, a three-year effort to spur civic engagement to create a clean, green, beautiful city. One way to support the effort would be to visit the canal without feeding the ducks and geese. Observe and admire waterfowl as they land, dive, float, and take flight. Take a bird book and identify other species that frequent the canal. Understand their roles in nature. Educate yourself, your family, and friends about ways to enjoy and sustain the beauty along this unique historic asset.
Chris Carlson is a freelance writer living in Warfleigh.