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Byline: Shelby Martin The Register-Guard

When Pat Phillips' grandchildren were visiting for Christmas, she decided to take them out for one of Eugene's favorite activities: walking around Alton Baker Park and tossing bread scraps to the resident ducks and geese.

They had just arrived at the park when her husband read a sign posted by the water's edge.

"It was so sad," Phillips said. "We had already thrown some bread crumbs, but we took the rest of the bread back to the car."

The new sign in Alton Baker Park explains the prevalence of so-called "angel wing," a condition marked by a deformed wing and spindly feathers that poke out at right angles. When a young bird eats calorie-dense, nutritionally poor foods - like bread - the growth of its feathers outpaces the development of its wing bones. Gravity pulls the heavy feathers down, and the growing bones twist outward, resulting in the twisted wing. Bandages and physical therapy can correct the condition in young birds, but it is incurable in adults, and affected birds lose the ability to fly.

Louise Shimmel, executive director of the Cascades Raptor Center in Eugene, said many people have noticed the injured birds, but few know what causes their condition.

"People call all the time telling us they've seen birds with broken wings at the park," she said. "We have to explain what's really going on."

"Bread is bad, bad, bad," said Michele Goodman of the Webbed Foot Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic in Connecticut.

Bread is bird junk food, Goodman said, and handouts such as whole slices of bread, pizza crusts and bagels can actually cause birds to choke to death.

Feeding birds can cause them to lose their natural fear of humans, and that can lead to aggression.

"People are likely to be `attacked' by geese who want a handout," Goodman said. "They don't realize the bird is approaching them with enthusiasm, not with a thirst for blood."

Goodman also pointed out that geese who become accustomed to human handouts can starve in the wintertime when their benefactors stay indoors. "People won't brave the bad weather to feed the birds," she said.

Another problem with large bird populations is apparent to any park visitor who's ever had to scrape vast quantities of bird droppings off their shoes.

"It gets pretty grody out there," said Rob Hallett, turf and grounds supervisor for the city of Eugene's Parks and Open Space Division. "We have a number of folks who are fed up."

Of particular concern to Hallett are the park's white geese: They're actually a variety of domesticated bird raised for their meat, eggs and down, and were likely abandoned at the park by farmers or pet owners.

"They're not wild animals." Hallett said. "It's a big problem."

To drive geese away from the area, the city contemplated such solutions as laser lights and goose-irritating sirens. Such so-called "hazing techniques" do not harm geese, merely annoy them so they'll stay away. The problem, Hallett said, is that geese eventually get used to them and come back anyway.

Instead, the city plans to make the cement pond at Alton Baker Park less hospitable to waterfowl by reducing the areas where geese can "haul out," and by redesigning the area to include more vegetation around the water's edge.

Hallett said geese like an unobstructed view of their surrounding to keep a close eye on potential predators. Interrupting their line of sight with trees and vegetation could convince them to find a new home. The design is still in the works, but construction could begin as soon as next summer.

In the meantime, the city has erected the sign describing the dangers of angel wing, and also plans to put up placards reading "Do not feed the birds."

Disobeying the signs would be a violation of park rules, and could carry a misdemeanor citation or a monthlong ban from the park.

"I don't know if that would ever happen or not," Hallett said. "What we're really trying to do is educate the public."

Hallett knows the goose-mitigating measures will get mixed reviews from Eugene residents, many of whom grew up feeding birds in the park.

"Some people are going to be upset," he said. "But some people will say, `Hooray!'"
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Title Annotation:City/Region; A steady bread diet can deform waterfowl wings
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 11, 2008
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