Hey neighbour, enough with the squirrel feeding already

In municipalities across Canada, fights are breaking out between residents who feed wildlife in their backyards, and their fed-up neighbours

By all accounts Debra Belcourt is a great host. But is she a good neighbour?

Belcourt’s hospitality was the subject of intense interest in Winnipeg earlier this month—specifically, her habit of keeping several backyard feeding stations well-stocked with nuts and seeds for the benefit of local birds. Many of her neighbours worry that her feeders, which sit just a few inches off the ground, offer a hearty welcome to more than just winged visitors.

Late last year Winnipeg bylaw officials cited Belcourt for harbouring pests in her backyard and ordered the removal of the feeders. Belcourt appealed. Her hearing last week offers a glimpse into the tensions and complications in play when the passions of nature lovers conflict with those who prefer to keep a more distant relationship with wildlife. And highlights the need for municipalities to take decisive action on backyard smorgasbords.

Several of Belcourt’s neighbours complained the inexhaustible supply of easily accessible food she provides has turned her yard “into a sanctuary for vermin,” squirrels in particular, which has led to extensive damage to cars, houses, sheds and lawns. They further claimed peanut shells strewn widely provided an important clue as to the perpetrators and their enabler. “I know she is extremely passionate about animals,” neighbour Cara Palmeiro said in a letter to the city. “I just wish she afforded a minute amount of such consideration for her neighbours.”

Belcourt retorted that any complaints about the local squirrel population had more to do with the mature trees on her street than her own actions. Civil discourse within the neighbourhood appears to have collapsed entirely. Among the evidence compiled for the city hearing were allegation of numerous shouted arguments, threats and accusations, including an ominous, unsigned warning to local cat owners promising a surreptitious campaign to trap free-roaming felines after a “tame chipmunk  . . .  and now a gorgeous squirrel” were found “lying dead in my flower garden.”

No one quibbles with Belcourt’s right to feed birds, or love animals. But big problems can occur when such generosity affects the rest of the animal kingdom.

Injunctions against feeding bears and other large predators are a staple in Canada’s rural and mountainous areas. Ecologists further warn that providing large quantities of food for wild animals, both big and small, promotes undesirable human contact and hinders their ability to survive on their own. Yet many urban homeowners ignore this advice and lay out massive backyard banquets for feathered and furry visitors. This urge may be driven by a desire to observe nature, a misguided concern for animal welfare or the absence of other fulfilling pastimes or relationships. Regardless of motivation, it can wreak havoc on nearby homes. And many Canadian municipalities are surprised to learn they’re powerless to stop it.

Despite the obvious impact of Belcourt’s liberal seed- and nut-disbursement policy, Winnipeg lacks the ability to shut down her feeding stations because no bylaw specifically forbids such a thing. Belcourt was ordered to clean up some debris in her yard, but her feeders can stay.

This is not an isolated issue. While some larger Canadian cities, such as Toronto, Vancouver and Hamilton, prohibit wildlife feeding, many do not. In suburban Waterloo, Ont., my own neighbourhood has also been affected by a resident (colloquially known as the “crazy squirrel lady”) who tops up several large piles of seeds and grains in her back lawn on a daily basis. Game trails have been worn into the yards of nearby houses as a procession of squirrels, raccoons, coyotes, possums, rats and many other creatures make their way to this immoveable feast. Huge flocks of crows and other large birds arrive by air to take advantage of the bounty. Neighbouring houses are plagued by infestations in attics, basements and yards but calls to police, public health and municipal and provincial officials have been in vain. Without a no-feeding rule, nothing can be done.

Given the proliferation of bylaws in Canada covering everything from sidewalk shovelling to parking to noise—all designed to facilitate congenial relations between neighbours—it is striking to discover many cities have nothing to say about residents who convert their backyards into outdoor feeding emporiums. It’s an oversight communities across the country are now correcting.

After some folks put salt licks and feeding troughs in their backyards to attract deer, Guelph, Ont., enacted a bylaw late last year prohibiting the feeding of all wildlife. Stratford, Ont., recently added a similar prohibition, as did New Glasgow, N.S. It appears to be a trend on the march. And for good reason.

“We had someone putting out dog food every night at 6 p.m. so he could watch the raccoons come by,” says Ian Paton, a councillor in Delta, B.C. When complaints started to flood in from neighbours besieged by rats chewing through wires and making nests in their homes, Paton was surprised to learn his municipality could do nothing to stop it.

“We have rules on illegal basement suites, parking and everything else. But all we could do was scold this person for attracting a lot of rats to his neighbourhood,” he says. A bylaw amendment passed earlier this month has since banned backyard wildlife feeding, on pain of a $200 fine. “Now we can do something about it,” Paton says.