Feeding Wildlife (Or Not) During the Winter Months
As I watch the bird activity around our bird feeder on this very cold day Upstate New York, including one very hungry squirrel, I happily hit “publish.” to share Inside+Out contributor, Dave Holden’s take on feeding wildlife during the winter months.
Dave Holden: If you study all the literature about feeding wildlife, you soon see that in general, it is not a good idea – both for wildlife or for people – and is also illegal in New York State. The only exception to this is feeding birds and that has to be done correctly. Only fill feeders with seed when bears are napping for the winter, keep your feeder clean to prevent disease, and removing birdseed that may have fallen under it so as to not increase your small rodent population. And, please, only use good bird-seed or suet.
The Black Bear is not a true hibernator so keep in mind if there is a warm spell they may wake from their nap… and wake hungry. Having the strongest sense of smell of any mammal (5 times that of dogs, even the Bloodhound) and loving birdseed (it’s like candy to them) they may make a beeline right for your feeder. Therefore, if the weather warms up, it would make sense to temporarily take your feeder down. Also, if that is the case, there will likely not be snow and the birds can feed on the ground as they have for millions of years. The truth is that wild birds rarely need to be fed.
I know folks feed ducks and geese, but that is really more for the humans, also, rather than for those birds because the bread, crackers and popcorn that we feed them really have no nutritional value and are poor substitutes for their natural diets.
We end up feeding wildlife either accidentally or intentionally. Examples of accidental wildlife feeding: are trash containers; leaving pet food and water containers out, and littering – take it out with you (Google – “Leave No Trace”). Human food is usually wrapped in foil, paper or plastic, all of which can harm an animal as they ingest the food. Intentionally feeding wildlife creates a whole host of problems – both for the animals and for people. All wildlife have specialized diets adapted over the millennia and anything we feed them can disrupt their digestion and could make them ill. One really good example is when White-tail Deer eat anything other than their normal browse, their system has to create a new enzyme to digest it and it may take up to two weeks before that happens. In the meanwhile, they can’t eat their normal food and may get sick and starve, particularly in winter. This is a major reason not to feed deer – you can end up harming them when you thought you were helping them.
Moreover, it’s not good for the deer to be attracted to human habitations more than usual. They will be more likely to cause car/deer accidents which can (and frequently does) harm people, as well. Neither do we really want to increase their already-burgeoning population which is rapidly destroying the forest understory (witness the “browse-line” in the woods). The more we feed bears, deer and other wildlife, the more likely we are to come in contact with their diseases – Chronic Wasting Disease, Hantavirus and Rabies are the most common.
Because all these animals are wild they are capable of anything. If being fed, they may start out seeming friendly, but they are not naturally used to being around people and can be easily spooked, in which case they can all become aggressive or violent rapidly to both people and pets. NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has a saying “A fed bear is a dead bear” because it is true that they are more likely to be the one that suffers from human contact – not the human. It’s not uncommon for bears acculturated to human food to force their way into homes, bringing them into dangerous (mostly for them) contact. People feeding wildlife can disrupt their whole neighborhood as unnatural amounts of wildlife enter human habitats.
Neighbor complaints to DEC are a major way how folks who feed wildlife get into trouble. Bear cubs and other young wildlife may not learn how to fend for themselves in the wild if fed by people, thereby decreasing their chances for survival. Never, at any time, approach or touch sick or injured wildlife. Contact a licensed Wildlife Rehabber, like Ravensbeard Wildlife Center or Friends of the Feathered and Furry Wildlife Center.
So please everyone – it’s ok to feed birds in the right way at the right time, but please, please, please do not feed other wildlife, either inadvertently or on purpose. It is neither good for them or for you. For more on this please visit the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s website on Animals HERE. If you seriously want to help wildlife, I suggest volunteering for a professional rehabber like Ravensbeard Wildlife Center or Friends of the Feathered and Furry Wildlife Center. For homeowners, consider Naturescaping on your property to provide wildlife with natural sources of food and shelter.
Thank you, “Ranger” Dave Holden
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Dave Holden | Woodstock Trails
Dave Holden is a New York State DEC Licensed Hiking Guide