Wildlife measure would prohibit bird feeders

Photos by Steve Heinl
The blue-gray tanager is a common bird of the Central Valley which will come to bananas almost anywhere. Here the bird is shown with a
palm tanager and a euphonia. The yellow-throated euphonia to the right is also attracted to fruit at feeders.

A more obscure provision of the new wildlife protection law just passed on first reading by the Costa Rican legislature effectively outlaws bird feeders. At its broadest interpretation, even children feeding the pigeons in San Jose’s Plaza de la Cultura would be in violation of the law.

Article 116 of the law “Unwarranted feeding of wildlife,” after laying out the penalties involved, says those apply to “…whoever might feed wild animals in their natural habitat, attract wildlife as a tourist attraction using natural or artificial substances, auditory or visual means, or any other manner.”

In the biological sense habitat is anywhere an organism lives or is even present. The term does not require that the place be in any way natural or unaltered, though it is often used in that sense. For example, the only places on earth not habitat of some bird are polar and glacial ice, some sandy deserts, and the highest Himalayan and Andean peaks. Usually when animals or birds are endangered it is because of habitat destruction, rather than the direct removal by hunting contemplated in the new law. But when one animal’s favored habitat is destroyed, it creates habitat for other species either more adaptable or already evolved for similar conditions. An excellent example in Costa Rica is the abundant great-tailed grackle, which originally was a shoreline scavenger found only on beaches before humans altered the landscape.

Similarly, when escaped domestic pigeons take up residence in downtown San José they are in their natural habitat. It might be argued in this case that
they are not wildlife, but once reproductive success
is achieved usually a population is considered wild again.

Since there is no specific reference to feeding birds, it is possible that the framers of the law were thinking of large mammals like monkeys and pizotes, as the raccoon-like coati is known here. The feeding of crocodiles as a tourist attraction is well known also. But the reference to artificial substances clearly rules out the hummingbird feeders that are a common feature at tourist lodges.

Similarly the only interpretation available for the prohibition of other means of attracting wildlife is to eliminate the use of recordings to call in territorial birds where they can be better observed or photographed. This practice is sometimes criticized for causing untoward disturbance of the birds, and can be notable in heavily visited areas, but has not been shown to cause lasting harm to any population.

Most bird species that can be attracted to feeders in Costa Rica come to fruit like bananas or papaya rather than the birdseed more familiar to those from colder climes. On occasion this is criticized in scientific circles, but more likely for artificially maintaining unsustainable populations than for being just unnatural. The fines for these offenses are from 15 percent up to one salario base, or from about $105 to $700.

According to a member of its scientific committee, the Costa Rican Ornithological Association will attempt to lobby the environmental ministry who will set the final regulations that make the vague language of the law enforceable. Some softening of other aspects of the bill, such as only allowing research permits of up to six months for visiting biologists, will also be desirable to the scientific community.

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