My Little Ducks

Yes, the title is a reference to Sally Gardner’s Three Pickled Herrings, a wonderful book the daughter and I are nearly finished. Unrelated, yes – this post has nothing to do with the book – but Fidget’s manner of addressing protagonist Emily is a nice constant throughout the series thus far…

This post is about real ducks (and pigeons, and Canada Geese, and other wild birds), and our relationship with them in the city. And children.

I am always a bit beside myself whenever we’re at Granville Island and kids (including my kid) are feeding things to ducks and pigeons, as happened yesterday. Confession: we buy birdseed from the little cafe there and give our daughter the bags to feed them. The point of telling about this? I know we shouldn’t be feeding them at all (the seed itself is a pretty good option for the birds – better than damned hot dog buns, and I’ve seen boneheads doling that crap out into ponds to rot and make birds sick); we shouldn’t be reinforcing their dependence on and trusting of humans, but please hear me out. Until yesterday I wasn’t ever comfortable feeding this urban wildlife. Since yesterday, though, I now think we can actually achieve some benefits out of this.

Yesterday a dozen kids were playing there, giving attention to the pigeons. A subset of about a half dozen little kids (both boys and girls) in their Hallowe’en costumes (yes, some of them ninjas, a Spiderman, and a few princesses) were chasing, trying to kick, and in one case, trying to STEP ON pigeons (Spiderman, wouldn’t you know?). I know all small children relish chasing urban birds – we’re capable of  destructive behaviour at a young age (maybe not as much as we are also capable of altruistic behaviour – even as young as 15 months, research shows). I chased seagulls myself when I was my kid’s age. At Granville Island. It was hilarious. But kids don’t know any better.

Parents do. It’s our job to guide our kids and get them to consider the consequences of their actions beyond the immediate pleasures they might get out of teasing another kid at school (or joining in on teasing in order to gain acceptance by some other children), and other sorts of values we’d like to instill in them. It seems that most people in North American society condemn wanton cruelty towards animals (as evidenced in the backlash to high profile incidents like this one, among many others in recent memory, including Michael Vick). Following this pattern, shouldn’t parents view their kids’ attempts to kick and stomp pigeons as an opportunity to remind them that they can interact with animals in different – and far more interesting – ways? As a sidebar, whether or not the children I saw today actually intended to harm the birds is irrelevant – when ten year olds ‘fake kick’ pigeons, nearby six year olds emulate them, perhaps not grasping the ‘fake’ intent. I saw this very thing happen today.

Then, a strange thing happened. I walked out onto the tiny wharf where most of the kids were standing, got between one of the kickers and a group of pigeons he was about to kick, and gently put some seed out in front of them, which they happily started to eat. The boy was genuinely shocked, and then took a determined interest in what the pigeons were doing. He got really excited that a person could just give them food and they would start eating it. He stopped his violent arsing about and put out his hand to ask me for some seeds.

Minutes later I had taken a seat on one of the nearby benches and just watched while things started to calm down. My wife was out there on the wharf with our daughter, and, like I had done, she gave seeds to a group of Disney princesses who had been previously ‘fake kicking’ and chasing the poor birds. Same response: they really took to feeding them instead, and grew apparently fascinated with the birds’ behaviour.

With this simple gesture, and no coercive efforts, we calmed these kids down and gave them something better to do. Perhaps we also gave them an opportunity to think about what was going on inside these animals’ minds. At least, I hope I’m interpreting what’s going inside these kids’ minds accurately. Kids under the age of 8 or so are usually transparent about their thoughts and feelings, in my experience.

So, sometimes, maybe it’s better to feed the birds.