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Feeding Wildlife In Winter Can Do Them Harm

Updated on November 30, 2015
Bob Bamberg profile image

With 30 years in the pet supply industry, Bob's newspaper column deals with animal health, nutrition, behavior, regulation, and advocacy.

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Depending upon their severity, winter conditions create hardships, and during these hard times, our thoughts frequently turn to the plight of the wild animals around us.

They’re probably coping better than we are.

Wildlife professionals will point out that wildlife has, for millennia, adapted to cope with harsh winter weather such as deep snow, cold temperatures, and high winds. It's the same with wildlife everywhere. And they also point out that feeding wild animals in winter can have serious consequences, although they take a softer tone regarding wild bird feeding.

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It should be noted, though, that feeding wild birds can attract many types of wildlife, including turkeys and small mammals like squirrels and mice. Those are all prey species, and predators like bears, foxes, fishers, and coyotes that feed on small mammals can be drawn to your yard

Deep snow makes it difficult for deer because low browse is covered. They can free some of it by pawing, or they can take the easy way out and just come over to your yard and eat your expensive ornamental plantings.

Many stores now carry food for wild animals. You can buy 50 pound bags of deer corn, deer pellets, wildlife mixtures that consist of a variety of grains and forage products, and salt and mineral licks. You might want to reconsider the wisdom of feeding local wildlife.

One problem with establishing feeding stations is that it causes wildlife to congregate in abnormally high densities, and that can have unintended consequences. It puts children and pets at risk, and it also subjects small wildlife to injury or death from our pets.

Animals can become aggressive when there are nearby competitors for food. Scuffles not only present the risk of injury or death, but also cause the animals to waste energy reserves. And when animals congregate, there’s always the chance to spread disease and parasites. Also there can be environmental consequences when vegetation and habitat are negatively impacted because a territory can only support so many animals.

Do You Feed Wildlife Other Than Birds?

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Backyard feeding also encourages animals to cross roads, increasing the danger of deer/vehicle collisions. This is a major problem, as reported in http://bobbamberg.hubpages.com/hub/Be-Wary-of-Deer-Crossing .

Wild animals seasonally change behaviors, which enables them to cope with harsh conditions. Feeding stations can alter those behaviors, often with harmful results. Plus, animals can become reliant on humans, and habituated, which puts us mere mortals at risk.

One thing you can do is improve wildlife habitat on or near your property. You can provide appropriate plantings, or regenerate natural food and cover such as forest or brushy habitat. The best thing, though, is to step back and allow the animals’ instincts to take over.

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    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi ladyguitarpicker, nice to see you. You're right...nature does have it all figured out and we mere bipeds should leave the animals alone. Often times, things aren't what they appear to be. In our attempts to right what we perceive to be a wrong, we screw things up. Thanks for stopping by, Stella, and thanks for the kind words.

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 2 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      Hi Bob, Nature has a better way to take care of animals better then we do. We have plenty of deer in our woods. I do not feed them or they would thin out. The squirrels eat everything in the spring and summer. Humans need to leave animals alone. Great Hub, Stella

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      For a while, I was afraid we'd never see the grass again, Bill! I would guess that most wildlife took the winter in stride. Right after a 2-foot snowfall the squirrels would still make their way to our deck where the bird feeder is mounted, and the deck is 10 feet off the ground. The nearest tree is 30 yards from the deck and they had no problem traversing the snow to get here. Plant life probably took a bigger hit. I know a lot of people whose shrubs suffered substantial deer damage. Glad you made it through OK. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 2 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Bob. It sure was a tough winter up here in New England. I do worry about the animals but I know they find a way to cope. I think perhaps I faired worse than the animals did. Now that spring had arrived the deer are out and the squirrels and rabbits are doing their thing. It's great to see.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi, Ron, thanks for stopping by. I don't how your area is populated, but where I live is a suburban/urban setting, and we have a sizable deer population. A lot of people feed deer during the winter, A: so that the animals won't destroy hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of landscaping and, B: because they're concerned that the deer might starve. It sure makes for a dilemma. Thanks again for stopping by and commenting.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      Interesting hub. I don't hear of people in our part of Pennsylvania making an effort to feed wildlife (except birds) during harsh weather, and it's something I don't do. But I've often found myself wondering how the animals make it when snow and ice cover the ground as they did for so much of this past winter. I guess the answer is, as you say, they are adapted to it and know how to survive without human help.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi Adrienne, nice to see you, and glad you liked the hub. It's similar to my hub on not helping baby wild animals. Most folks aren't aware that what they think are helpful solutions actually have some pretty serious unintended consequences.

      I'm not aware that feeding hummingbirds can be harmful, other than home made "nectar" can go rancid pretty quickly and facilitate a fungus that affects their tongues. Because of the frequency with which they feed, the nectar doesn't usually last long enough to go rancid in most yards. Thanks for the comment and the votes.

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 2 years ago from USA

      Hello, this was a great read with the best interest of animals in mind. It's easy to forget or naively not be aware of the dangers from feeding wild animals. The only animals I have ever fed are humming birds, but then we stopped as it turns out this can be harmful too. Voted up and useful.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Glad you stopped by, FlourishAnyway. It's sad to learn of what has befallen the deer population in your area. I wonder if that's nature's way of thinning the herd...sort of the way brush and forest fires regenerate growth. Squirrels are indeed clever. There are amazing videos around showing squirrels traversing sophisticated obstacle courses to reach a bird feeder waiting at the end. Thanks for dropping by.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      I feed the birds and some squirrels do stop by. They can't be deterred. I even have one living in a gourd birdhouse, having gnawed the opening and setting up shop. He is creative and none of the birds have wanted it the past few years, so I allow him to rest comfortably. The deer population around here has been ravaged by a wasting disease. The ones left do find a way of making it to my father's apple trees in the fall and his large garden.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hi, Mary...boy, you really know how to hurt a guy! We just got a couple of more inches of snow, changing briefly to rain before ending. Overnight is going down into the single digits. At this rate, we won't have to mow our lawns until after Labor Day.

      I have a few friends who moved to FL in recent years, and they mention the problem of folks feeding the gators and other folks losing dogs because of it. Really dumb idea! It's nice to see you...thanks for stopping by, voting and sharing.

      I echo that sentiment, Jackie. It will take a helluva long time for global warming to start burning people alive...and it will never do beheadings.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I certainly do not believe Climate Change if it is indeed true is more serious than terrorism; I will say that!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 2 years ago from Florida

      Good Morning from sunny Florida where we are having another wonderful day in the 90's! The big problem we have are those ignorant people who feed the alligators that are in our local ponds. Then the gators lose their fear of people and come up on shore for food. They then attack and kill small dogs.

      Yes, Mother Nature is wonderful and seems to take care of most wildlife.

      Voted UP, etc. and shared.

    • Bob Bamberg profile image
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      Bob Bamberg 2 years ago from Southeastern Massachusetts

      Hey, Doc, great to see you. It's been a while! Yeah, we're up to our tramp stamps in snow around here and it's been pretty cold. Not as cold as the Midwest, but still below normal for us. I've thought of you often this winter...well, about your front yard, anyway. :) Thanks for stopping by.

      Hi Jackie, nice to have you drop by. My bird feeder is on my deck and at times, I've had as many as 7 squirrels feeding at a time. I've had raccoons on my deck on summer nights, and in 2013 a hen turkey and her 3 poults were regular visitors on my deck for several months.

      I'm less adamant than my state's wildlife division...I just think you should use some common sense when inviting wildlife into your yard. Indeed, when I had my feed and grain store, I sold the foods I mentioned in the hub.

      I believe in global warming to the extent that it's cyclical and has been for millions of years. According to Harvard research, the earth was actually warmer during medieval times. The global warming debate will never end...it's a cash cow. People are raking in the dough writing books, giving lectures, appearing on TV, consulting, etc. Plus, the debate can be regional. With the winter we've been having it's common for folks to say sarcastic things like, "I don't know how much more of this global warming I can take." You've had a mild winter, so global warming doesn't seem so abstract to many in your neck of the woods. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 2 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I do feed a squirrel some too but not on purpose! We get so tired of that little pig! We scare him off and then he sneaks up a different direction like we are stupid! lol We use the little guard but he gets his greedy little paws in there and eats away.

      Thankfully our winter in NC has been pretty mild and today was 75 but tomorrow they say we can get 1 to 3 inches of snow! If we do it will probably be very wet and disappear quick.

      Hope you folks up there are not having power failures or people freezing. Snow can be very beautiful if everyone has all they need to eat and stay warm! I am ready for spring though Bob; how about you? Do you still believe in global warming? lol

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 2 years ago from The Beach of Brazil

      Interesting article, Bob. We had a drought in January--it looks like you had it a lot worse up your way!