To Feed or Not to Feed

Why New Yorkers Feed Animals in Urban Parks

By Brant deBoer and Alex J Fang

In addition to commuters, chess-players, dog-walkers and people seeking respite from the commotion of Manhattan, Union Square hosts what many see as a nuisance: pigeons, squirrels, and according to some, the people who feed them despite the rules against it.

We set out to corner a few of these to find out, among other things, what impels them to tote sacks filled with seeds, nuts, bread, and grains and broadcast to urban wildlife.

Union Square Park’s rules clearly prohibit feeding birds and squirrels.

Wah Shum is an immigrant from Hong Kong who travels regularly to parks such as Union Square and Central Park to feed pigeons and squirrels. His concern is that the animals would starve because there is not enough naturally-occurring food for them in the city.

Wah Shum feeds pigeons in Union Square. He aims to provide healthy foods so that the animals don’t starve. Passers-by often rebuke him because they dislike the pigeons and believe that he is helping sustain a pesky bird population.

Others feeding pigeons and squirrels have their own reasons. Harry Mendryk feeds squirrels simply because he enjoys it. He offers them nuts, and they scurry across his legs while he reads every morning on a park bench.

Sitting across the park from Harry, John Freddy Constellos and Manuel Arellano come to feed the pigeons because they are afraid that they won’t find food in the winter and that their migratory patterns are disrupted by city living. These two pigeon-feeders are originally from Colombia, where, they tell us, it is common for people to pass time feeding birds. To round out our inquiry, we solicited the opinions of other park patrons to see what they thought of it. There were mixed responses.

We talk with Harry, Freddy, and Manuel about why they feed squirrels and pigeons.

According to the official website of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, it is legal to feed “unconfined squirrels and birds” in New York City parks except in areas that the Parks Commissioner has designated “where all feeding of animals is prohibited”. Union Square is clearly signed as one of these prohibited areas.

Of course, wildlife feeding extends beyond just Union Square. The practice is so ubiquitous in New York City that some even suggest that it is part of the quintessential New York experience.

Opponents of the practice raise such concerns as reliance on human food, impact on wildlife health, loss of foraging skills, and changes in migration patterns. And even if certain species do benefit from feeding, these species are likely widespread in the first place, and could even push out local species in more dire need of conservation.

But as more and more people live in urban environments, feeding animals may be one of the ways that people fulfill the need to interact with nature in a meaningful way. And in New York, the pigeons and squirrels don’t appear to be going anywhere.