Enough with the Bread

By: Gila Kalman  |  October 23, 2023

By Gila Kalman, Senior Opinions Editor

With tashlich having come and gone for the year of 2023, one word has snuck its way back into my consciousness: bread. Yes, bread. One very prevalent practice in many cultures is the feeding of bread to birds and fish. It is unclear why or how this practice has developed, but it is still very common today. For as long as I have been educated in wildlife care, I have considered this an unfortunate and even tragic misconception. Fish and birds, including most other wildlife, should not eat bread. People who feed bread to fish and birds are well intentioned. In fact, once upon a time, I was one of them. Whether to have a fun activity aimed at getting the kids interested in tashlich, or as a way to dispose of uneaten bread and avoid ba’al tashchit (waste), or simply to connect to wildlife, people feed fish and birds bread for all kinds of innocent reasons. However, this perception that the animals can eat bread is misguided and actually quite harmful. 

For one thing, bread is full of empty calories which greatly contributes to the malnourishment of wild birds and fish. The diets of birds are primarily made up of fish, other birds, insects, vegetation, seeds, and nuts. While fish are apt to eat algae and other aquatic plants, worms, insects, small aquatic organisms like plankton, and other fish. Meanwhile, bread has very little protein, fat, and fiber, being made up primarily of carbs, and often large amounts of sodium and sugar. Additionally, so much of the bread produced in America is packed with high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener which is known for its harmful effects on the body. When animals are fed bread, they are not receiving the nutrients they require, and may also be ingesting immensely harmful ingredients. 

According to the Chicago Academy of Sciences, the malnutrition caused by bread is thought to be linked to the prevalence of ‘angel wing’ in waterfowl. Angel wing is a deformity of the wing in which growth is stunted, affecting a bird’s ability to fly. Once a bird becomes an adult, this condition is permanent and often leads to an early death. The deformity is known to be caused by a deficiency in vitamins and minerals and an excess in carbohydrates and sugars. It’s no wonder bread is a main suspect. 

Just like birds, feeding bread to fish can have disastrous consequences. The Atlantic City Aquarium offers several reasons as to why bread should never be fed to fish. For one thing, fish cannot digest yeast or gluten and gain little to no nutrients from bread. Perhaps even more alarming, however, is that bread will continue to expand due to water absorption once the fish has already eaten it. This leads to swelling of the stomach, intestinal blockage, and constipation which can often be fatal. A reduction in metabolic processes can also be expected in fish that are fed bread, leading to further health complications. 

Not only is bread directly harmful to birds and fish, causing disastrous deformities and otherwise avoidable fatalities, it also affects the water these animals live in. According to Campbelltown City Council, feeding animals bread severely contaminates the water quality through an excess in bacteria. This excess is caused by increased animal defecation, as a result of eating bread and algae blooms, due to the remnants of decaying bread left in the water. These results can cause rampant disease amongst animals who depend on the body of water for food and shelter, and drain the water of oxygen, killing aquatic residents indirectly. 

We cannot rely on animals to refrain from harming their bodies by eating bread. Just like our pets, they will take what we give them – so it is our job to make sure what they are getting isn’t harmful. A word of caution – one should not make feeding wild animals a common practice. Regardless of what you feed them, even if it is healthy, they should not learn to be reliant on human beings for food. It is critical to their survival that they continue to use the skills of hunting and foraging, so that they are able to obtain food by their own means and can teach these abilities to the generations of animals that come after them. 

However, if you desire to connect with nature by way of feeding animals, as many of us do, here are some recommended foods. If you want to feed forest birds, pop into a local pet shop and buy a bag of wild bird seed or a nut and fruit blend. You can also leave out platters of cut up fruit in your backyard, but make sure to clean up old fruit and take care to watch for mold growth. For waterfowl, it’s best to go with lettuce, seeds, or frozen (defrosted) peas. You can also purchase waterfowl pellets, though be sure not to oversaturate the water with them. For fish feeding, earthworms are the best bet. You can also go for protein pellets, with the same caveat as the waterfowl – be frugal with how much you throw into the water. Another word of caution, because there can never be too much caution when it comes to wildlife – do not take my suggestions as the end all be all. Anytime you want to feed wildlife, research what exactly is recommended in feeding the specific species in the specific area you are going to feed. Additionally, find out whether it is safe to feed this species, some wildlife should be left completely alone. 

Hopefully this brief article helped to clear up some of the misinformation around feeding wildlife, and has given a few helpful tips regarding the matter. Wanting to connect with wildlife is a wonderful thing, and feeding can be a memorable and fun activity, but for the love of nature – enough with the bread.