By Ian Huggett
A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. At least that’s the position of visitors who have enjoyed feeding chickadees and nuthatches by hand at bird feeders throughout Gatineau Park. The National Capital Commission’s (NCC) decision to remove the feeders has become increasingly unpopular and continues to divide the opinion of local conservation groups.
Like Parks Canada, the NCC has a mandate to encourage the public enjoyment, understanding, and appreciation of nature. For generations, many a young person’s first encounter with wildlife involved feeding chickadees at NCC bird feeders.
Similarly, the NCC is obliged to enhance wildlife habitat under the ‘compensation’ requirement outlined within the former Environmental Assessment Act.
Habitat destruction by capital projects has plagued the park since Prime Minister McKenzie King declared it a wildlife preserve for the enjoyment of Canadians. The most recent project involved the removal of hundreds of acres of mature forest to accommodate construction of the extension of Hwy 5 near Wakefield.
While the scientific community discourages artificial feeding of wild creatures such as turkeys, deer, and waterfowl, the same position is not held for wintering birds. Wild bird populations are declining throughout the world. The period of highest mortality is winter. Throw into the matrix an increase in severe weather events, such as ice storms, and resident bird populations are on the brink of collapse. Providing bird feeders is one tangible contribution society can make to stop this disturbing trend. Despite this, the NCC has pulled its feeders. Why the contradiction?
The NCC is under pressure to retain ownership and control over the Gatineau Park. Lobby groups are pressing for its takeover by Parks Canada. While Parks Canada has little interest in managing the park, NCC administrators believe the best way to retain control is to apply Parks Canada policies to its management. One such policy is a prohibition on feeding wildlife. That means removing its own bird feeders. The National Capital Act already includes a minor clause prohibiting the public from feeding wildlife.
Apparently, a court challenge last year sent the NCC packing with its tail between its legs. A visitor who received a ticket for feeding wildlife won the sympathy of a judge who threw out the charge. Like most myopic legal administrators, the judge failed to discriminate between the feeding of winter birds and tossing bread crumbs to nuisance wildlife, such as Canada geese.
The NCC’s legal advisers realize that courts are inept at differentiation.
While naturalist groups grapple with the incongruity of ‘to feed or not to feed’, wintering birds are suffering – and an increase in winter mortality results in reduced clutch sizes in spring for nesting resident birds.
The NCC has promised ‘capital wildlife enhancement’ projects to offset the removal of feeders; naturalist groups are divided on what this actually entails. This unpopular management decision is one of many that pervert the cause of justice and defy scientific reasoning. Only a strong public outcry will get feeders back inside the park.
Ian Huggett is the director of Eco-Watch