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Cathy Westerman had been going to the boat ramp at Mallard Point in Hendersonville for years before she noticed it.

Two geese among the many congregating at the popular park last month were a little different. Their wings looked mangled and jetted away awkwardly from their bodies.

The birds were afflicted with "angel wings," a condition long associated with waterfowl that spend time in public parks where people can feed them.

Scientists over the years have hypothesized that the condition is caused by poor nutrition and have not-so-subtly pointed fingers at people who feed the birds.

The sight of the impaired birds tugged at Westerman's heart.

"To see these animals walk around with the wings, and they look all chewed up," said Westerman, 59. "I broke down."

She's now trying to raise awareness about the condition, which she's identified in at least three Canada geese at the Hendersonville parks.

Westerman reached out to Joelton-based animal care center Walden's Puddle. Bettina Bowers, animal care director at the center, said she's seen the problem for years and the center doesn't take in the animals to care for.

"There is nothing that can be done," Bowers said. "We suggest leaving them where they are."

The condition more or less renders the birds flightless, preventing them from migrating and escaping from predators, she said.

Animal scientists believe the condition occurs when young ducks and geese grow too quickly, said Michael P. Jones, an avian veterinarian at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

"You get kind of a downward and outward rotation of the wing," he said.

That rapid growth is likely caused by people feeding high-calorie food such as bread to the waterfowl, which typically feed on grass, Jones said.

Westerman hopes more parks and public places where geese congregate will post signs warning people not to feed them. She's seen at least one already.

Joe Benedict, the waterfowl coordinator for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, said while the problem has not been growing in geese and ducks in Tennessee, there's a simple way to avoid hurting even one or two birds.

"We really don't recommend people feeding them," Benedict said. "It's kind of cool to take your kid and see a duck up close, but feeding is not really a good idea."

Angel Wing Syndrome

What: A condition in waterfowl, also called airplane wing and slipped wing, that causes part of the wing to rotate outward, impairing the bird.

When: The syndrome has been documented for decades, primarily in captive waterfowl worldwide.

Why: Theories range from excess dietary protein, carbohydrates or calories to vitamin deficiencies or genetics.

How You Can Help

Some state wildlife departments are advising visitors at public parks where waterfowl are present to not feed the animals.

Source: Tennessean research

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