A child watches the ducks at Riverbank Park in Westbrook. Chance Viles/American Journal

WESTBROOK — City Sustainability Coordinator Lynn Leavitt wants residents to get the message that feeding bread to ducks has negative effects on the both the waterfowl and the environment.

“A big part of this is education, I think if people knew feeding the ducks was bad for them, they wouldn’t do it,” Leavitt said.

Leavitt has been setting up information tables at events in the city for the past few months. Last month, she proposed that the City Council ban duck feeding. Soon, she and Girl Scout Leah Cromarty will team up to monitor the ducks to see if the educational effort has paid off.

Bread is not nutritious for ducks and poses no benefits, Leavitt said. Further, as uneaten bread rots in their water, it puts ducks at risk for infections and disease if they eventually do eat it.

Westbrook Sustainability Coordinator Lynn Leavitt Chance Viles/American Journal

Making matters worse, ducks congregate in areas where they are used to being fed.

“Having all of the ducks together increases the disease risk,” Leavitt said.

Bread can cause health complications such as “angel wing,” a syndrome that particularly affects aquatic birds, she said. Symptoms include a twisted portion of the wing, making it so that the bird cannot fly well or migrate.  Ducks being fed bread are also at a higher risk of metabolic bone disease, a degenerative disease that weakens animals over time to the point of excess bone breakage and fractures.

“That plays into the ducks staying in one spot, worsening disease, but also puts the river at greater risk,” Leavitt said.

Rotting bread and an increased amount of duck waste in one spot of the river contributes to “eutrophocacian.” Eutrophocacian is when a body of water, typically a river or lake, turns green with algae due to a high amount of minerals and nutrients. It  puts fish in the river at risk of disease and health issues.

“When it turns green, sunlight cannot get in, killing the plants at the bottom of the river,” Leavitt said. “This worsens the algae and also removes oxygen from water as things rot underwater anaerobically, making it harder for the fish to breathe as well. When they die and rot, it removes more oxygen and furthers eutrophocacian. It really is a vicious cycle, because once those plants begin to die, and fish begin to die, it worsens the condition.”

While eutrophocacian has not occurred in Westbrook, it has happened in other communities in Maine, Leavitt said. The “tipping point” is often hard to calculate, and eutrophocacian can get to a point where it cannot be fixed, although it is more common in non-moving bodies of water like lakes.

A mix of rice and bread by the river. Food left uneaten by wildlife will break down and leak into the river, causing algae growth. Chance Viles/American Journal

“Every body of water is different so it is hard to say if there is an exact threshold where it becomes an issue, but we are also taking such care of our river, and doing more for it, why would we undercut it,” Leavitt said.

In addition to prompting ducks to stick to one spot for handouts, duck feeding socializes the ducks so that they will leave the water and imperil themselves by venturing out into streets or other dangerous areas for them.

Duck-feed alternatives to bread exist, but any feeding of ducks is discouraged, Leavitt said. Even healthy food causes habituation to humans and prompts an unnatural congregation of wildlife on one portion of the river.

“We aren’t doing this to be ogres, we really care about the ducks, and I think if people knew what feeding the ducks does, we wouldn’t have the issue,” Leavitt said. “Still, people have been doing this forever, so a big part of this is education and letting people know what it does.”

Helping her with the educational component is Cromarty, a Westbrook eighth grader whose Silver Star project is to create “do not feed the ducks” signs for Riverbank Park.

“I want to make a sign to put in Riverbank Park which tells people not to feed the ducks and describes why,” Cromarty said at the City Council meeting where a feeding ban was initially discussed.

She plans to monitor the park to see duck feeding activity before the signs are installed, and then monitor for 10 days after to see if there was any decline.

“We have a plan for the summer to educate people … Leavitt and I will be working together at a booth about not feeding wildlife,” Cromarty said.

Leavitt and Cromarty hope the City Council will pass an ordinance to ban feeding ducks.

“The ordinance would put a fine in, not that we would fine people, but it gives a backbone to the ban,” Leavitt said. “The idea is that me or the animal control officer or someone would patrol and educate people feeding the ducks, but that has to be ironed out. … The fine would be for people who repeatedly continued to feed the ducks.”

Leavitt expects the ban to be back before the City Council sometime this month.

“We are hoping to try our best, other communities have done it, but it really is all about education and undoing all those years of people feeding the ducks,” Leavitt said.

Maine municipalities that have banned duck feeding include South Portland, Bangor, Sanford, Brunswick and Orono. Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park have bans on feeding ducks there as well.