SOUTH PORTLAND — Plans are being developed to install a new fountain in the pond at Mill Creek Park.
The idea is that the city’s signature park should have a beautiful water display near one of the the main gateways to the city, much like Portland has at Deering Oaks.
But picture that fountain blasting brown, algae-ridden water into the sky and you have a worst-case scenario of what could happen if the park’s duck problem isn’t solved.
City officials and others say the duck population at Mill Creek Park is out of control, at least in part because of persistent feeding by well-intentioned park visitors.
On any given day, dozens of ducks can be found at the 10-acre park. The result is dirty, brown pond water and messy areas around the pond from duck feces.
The fowl have also become aggressive, swarming people they believe have food. In some cases they have been rendered unable to fly because of malnutrition. And food left uneaten by the ducks attracts rodents, which leads to other problems at the park.
“It’s a man-made park, so it’s never going to be totally pristine,” said Sarah Neuts, operations manager for the city’s Parks Department. “But you don’t want the water smelling because of fecal matter. … People don’t want to look at algae blooms or a total brown mess.”
Earlier this summer, the city put signs out around the pond instructing people not to feed the ducks, but the signs have done little to deter the activity.
Getting the ducks out of the park and back into the wild – or even just thinning out their numbers – could be a logistical problem, not to mention a political one. Parks Department staff and others said that enforcing a no-feeding ordinance would be nearly impossible, plus there’s the sentimental attachment.
“It’s an issue, but we’ve done very little because we understand that part of going to Mill Creek Park is feeding the ducks,” said City Manager Jim Gailey. “People love doing that.”
Sean Bergeron, 18, of Gorham, was recently at Mill Creek Park for the first time. While he was there, he fed the ducks scraps of bread from a Wendy’s fast-food bag.
“I don’t see why it’s a big deal, even though I’m sure it does make the water more dirty,” he said. Bergeron said feeding the ducks is a nice way to pass the time, and that he wouldn’t come back to the park “just to look at the water.”
The duck population problem was before the City Council as recently as summer 2010. At that time, the city accepted a master plan for the park, which gave assessments and recommendations for its long-term design, maintenance and sustainability.
That plan resulted in the construction of the new gazebo, the removal of the foot-bridge over the pond and a plan for improved pathways set to go out to bid this winter for spring 2012 construction. It also outlined ways to improve water quality, including a better flushing system to cycle new water into the pond while removing stagnant water.
But it concluded that reducing feeding of the ducks “has the greatest potential to reduce nutrient inputs and will make the (other) recommendations more viable and less expensive over time.”
In the year since the report was accepted by the city, no plan has been drafted for dealing with duck feeding or the duck population.
Regina Leonard, a Topsham-based landscape architect who helped draft the master plan and is working on its implementation, said she recommended the city address the problem with education and public outreach.
“We acknowledge that it’s certainly an emotional issue for people,” Leonard said. “We don’t fault people for doing something that feels good to them. But the city really needs to start educating people that if they feed the ducks, there are ramifications.”
And those ramifications aren’t just about water quality and dirty grass.
Feeding, and the increased duck population that comes with it, handicaps the ducks, changes their behavior and can in some cases be fatal, said Corey Hamilton, South Portland’s animal control officer.
Most of the calls to Mill Creek Park are for birds injured or killed after being struck by cars, Hamilton said. He blames ducks wandering into the road in search of people with food. He also said feeding makes the ducks more aggressive, leading to fights in which one bird or another can be injured.
“It’s not a good thing for them,” Hamilton said an email. “People are mostly feeding them white bread and popcorn, which has zero nutritional value to them, and can lead to health issues.”
Those health issues include “angel wings,” a result of a high-sugar diet, in which the wings turn out rather than in against the body. This essentially leaves the duck unable to fly; Hamilton said he’d seen several ducks with angel wing.
The ducks also hamper the city’s ability to hold events with food in the park, Mayor Rosemarie De Angelis said. The possibility of swarming ducks is one of the reasons she said she is opposes putting the South Portland Farmers Market near the park.
“Only one of us can win here,” De Angelis said. “It’s either the ducks or the people.”
While recognizing the severity of the problem, everyone involved said education, not enforceable rules or ordinances, should be used to address the duck situation.
Neuts said it would be nice to have volunteers at the park to tell people why they shouldn’t feed the ducks. De Angelis said classes of school children or the Audubon Society could educate the public.
Gailey, the city manager, said he has trouble reconciling the need to resolve the waterfowl problems with the idea of a duck-free park.
“We’d like to have a few ducks, but can you have just a few ducks?” he said. “If you feed one or two, you end up with 30. I’m not sure what the right tactic is.”
South Portland has put up signs urging visitors not to feed the ducks at Mill Creek Park.
Despite the cold weather and coming winter, dozens of ducks were still milling around Mill Creek Park on Wednesday, Nov. 2. A long-term plan for the Park calls for South Portland to limit the duck population.