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Chickadee Ridge: To feed or not to feed?

Claire McArthur
Special to the Tribune
While there is no law stating you can’t feed the mountain chickadee and other birds, regional land management experts say by doing so, you're possibly harming their future.
Photo: Getty Images

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This story is adapted from the winter 2019-20 edition of Tahoe Magazine, a specialty publication of the Sierra Nevada Media Group. The magazine, which is packed with plenty of features and advertisements about all that the Tahoe-Truckee summer has to offer, is on newsstands now across Lake Tahoe, Truckee and Reno. Go to tahoemagazine.com to read it online, and be sure to pick up a copy today.

On a winter day at the top of Chickadee Ridge, a group of snowshoers snaps photos as the namesake birds eat seed and bread crumbs straight from their hands. There’s snow on the ground, views of Lake Tahoe in the distance, and the birds are darn cute.

It all sounds pretty picturesque, right? Indeed. Take a look at the hashtag #chickadeeridge on Instagram and there are over 1,000 photos, a huge portion of which feature people feeding mountain chickadees and other birds from their hands.

Perform a quick Google search of the popular hike in the Mount Rose Wilderness and you’ll find countless articles from tourism boards, bloggers and other media sources encouraging people to check out the area and find out for yourself how cool it is to feed these birds.

But in a region that’s constantly encouraging people to keep their distance from wildlife with measures like bear boxes for trash disposal, is it legal — or to a lesser extent, morally right — to feed these birds?

“We’ve basically trained these chickadees to associate humans with food. It’s completely changed their behavior around humans.”Jessica WolffUrban Wildlife Coordinator with the Nevada Department of Wildlife

While there is no law stating you can’t feed the birds (to be clear, it is in fact illegal to feed big game animals such as bears, deer, bighorn sheep, etc.), regional land management experts say that for the sake of the wildlife, you really shouldn’t. Not even for the ‘gram.

“There is no statewide law that prohibits it, but with that being said, there are a lot of impacts that people don’t necessarily think about when they go out and feed the birds,” says Jessica Wolff, Urban Wildlife Coordination with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. “For instance, they’re not necessarily feeding them what they would naturally eat, so they’re feeding them potato chips and pieces of bread.”

Feeding improper food to these birds can lead to malnutrition, disease and even obesity that can hinder birds’ responses to predators and resistance to harsh weather conditions and diseases.

“We’ve basically trained these chickadees to associate humans with food. It’s completely changed their behavior around humans,” says Wolff, noting that it’s likely impacted their natural drive to cache food during the winter.

Wolff suggests the best course of action is to adhere to principles put out by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, which advises recreationists to give wildlife a wide berth and not feed or touch them.

Ben Lawhon, education director for Leave No Trace, adds that repeated feeding of wildlife in the same area can result in unnatural congregation of the species and the spread of disease among the population.

“So we can inadvertently bring together all of the particular species in one area because they’re used to or looking for that handout, when these animals otherwise would never congregate naturally in those numbers,” says Lawhorn.

Over the last few years, Leave No Trace has noticed an uptick in human-wildlife conflicts and sensitive wildlife areas put under pressure from increased use.

“Universally across what I’ll call ‘the land management spectrum,’ from federal to state to local municipal lands, managers are seeing an increase in human wildlife conflict issues,” says Lawhon. “And those take all sorts of forms — everything from intentional feeding of small mammals or birds to people taking selfies with a black or grizzly bear in the background.”

Lawhon points to social media as a driving factor, as well as a sheer increase in the number of people getting out to enjoy the outdoors.

“People do a lot of things on Instagram for the clicks and likes, and they don’t necessarily think about the potential consequences of those actions,” he adds.

But Lawhon admits that at times, Leave No Trace principles have been “weaponized” online to shame people who may be going against one of the guidelines in a photo, and that’s not what the organization is about.

“We are not rules. We are not regulations. Leave No Trace is not black or white. It’s not hard and fast. We operate in the gray,” says Lawhon. “The most common answer in terms of Leave No Trace is often ‘it depends.’”

The best course of action, he says, is to strike up a non-confrontational conversation based on education and explain the potential consequences that can arise from feeding wildlife. “These are challenging conversations to have, and it’s just one tool that potentially could work,” he says. “But I’ve been at Leave No Trace for 18 years and I’ve seen it work many, many times.” So if you do decide to make the trek to Chickadee Ridge, perhaps think twice about feeding the birds and instead appreciate them perched in the trees and flying about — just as they were intended to be.


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