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Less is Best: Impacts of Wildlife Feeding Along RBG Trails

October 13, 2020

By Jennifer Dick, Interpretation Officer, Royal Botanical Gardens.

Wildlife in RBG’s nature sanctuaries have a problem — and the problem is overfeeding. A recent study discovered that the frequency and amount of feeding wildlife in hotspot areas such as Hendrie Valley Nature Sanctuary is doing far more harm than good.

Spending time in nature has many positive benefits. RBG offers a 27-km network of hiking trails through 2,400 acres of nature sanctuaries for visitors looking to connect with nature in and around the cities of Burlington and Hamilton. In addition to hiking, a popular way to connect with nature is through wildlife encounters. For guests visiting our trails, that often happens by feeding animals like birds and chipmunks. Feeding gives an up-close encounter with wildlife and warm fuzzy feelings for those who think they’re ‘helping’ them survive.

Although feeding birds in your city backyard might help them, it turns out that wildlife feeding in protected nature sanctuaries like RBG’s harms not just the animals, but the health of the whole ecosystem. RBG, the City of Hamilton, and the City of Burlington have bylaws in place to help protect wildlife and their habitat, so our visitors may notice “No Feeding” signs along the trails. To shed some light on the reasons for these rules, we’d like to share some of the conclusions from this study.

White Breasted Nut Hatch
Hendrie Park Valley Boardwalk In Fall

Impacts of Feeding

Birds need a high energy diet and many seed mixes available are not beneficial for Ontario native species. If they fill up on lower quality foods found in mixed seed, like corn, they won’t get all the nutrients they need even on a full stomach. These seed mixes also introduce possible new invasive plants into the nature sanctuaries. The RBG Botany team has found plants like millet growing along the trails from bird seed left behind.

There are long-term concerns for our forests if our birds and mammals aren’t foraging on their natural foods in the sanctuaries. Squirrels and chipmunks are nature’s tree planters. If their diet is being supplemented, this could mean that tree nuts such as acorns, walnuts, and hickories aren’t being distributed which could change the structure of our future forest over time.

RBG’s nature sanctuaries are home to many animals including species at risk such as Blanding’s Turtles, Wood Thrush, and Eastern Wood-Pewee. Ground-nesting species are threatened by the over-abundance of chipmunks, squirrels, skunks, and raccoons. The overpopulation of these animals is possible because of all the extra seeds left out along the trails. These omnivores, yes even chipmunks, eat turtle and bird eggs which further puts the populations of our threatened and endangered animals at risk.

Overpopulation of wildlife in the small areas around the feeding hotspots also poses a threat to their health and wellbeing. High concentrations of animals can lead to increased stress, aggression, and the rapid spread of disease. By minimizing the amount of food brought into the nature sanctuaries, we can all help restore the natural balance of the ecosystem so healthy animals can thrive.

Blandings turtle on shorline reflected in water
Blond squirrel on a handrail along the trails

How to Help

The most effective way for each of us to help wildlife is to provide natural habitat for them. In addition to supporting RBG nature sanctuaries, we can all help wildlife by planting native flowers, trees, and grasses in our yards and communities. Even small areas of native plants provide habitat that offers natural food sources and shelter to animals.

For anyone whose heart is set on feeding, we recommend offering no more than a handful of high-quality food, such as black oil sunflower seeds, and making sure not to leave any behind. While peanuts and nuts are high in energy, some trail visitors have allergies and peanut contamination of the trails has caused anaphylactic reactions. So that everyone can safely enjoy nature, please leave nuts at home and don’t leave any food behind. Remember, when it comes to feeding wildlife in places like this, “less is best”.

Four black sunflower seeds in outstretched hand
Two children looking through binoculars in natural area

Ultimately, best practice for wildlife encounters in protected natural areas are low impact activities where you observe what is happening in nature around you. Try taking some binoculars along with you to get an up-close look. Borrow a field guide from your library to help identify the plants and animals you see. Check out the iNaturalist app to contribute to citizen science where your observations could even help RBG researchers.

We hope you enjoy your time on the trails! Let us know what you see.

Learn More with our Video Series:

Nature Sanctuaries & Conservation

The nature sanctuaries cover 900 hectares of land at the head of Lake Ontario forming a Nodal Park in the Niagara Escarpment World Biosphere Reserve. The sanctuaries feature more than 27 kilometres of scenic walking trails.

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