The coming winter months trigger our good intentions and our need to feed our wild friends, but does this kindness come at a cost?
“Yes,” says Madonna Luers, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) public information officer for Eastern Washington. “Feeding wildlife makes us feel good, but we need to know the downsides of feeding.”
If you want to feed the wildlife in your backyard, whether you’re hanging a birdfeeder in the city or want to set up a feeding station for deer in the suburbs, consider the following:
No free meals
Feeding stations, even pet food left outside, attract all kinds of wildlife, including raccoons, skunks and bears. Raccoons may look cute, but they can become vicious, especially if cornered. And, for those who live in outlying areas, foraging bears can, and will, rip down bird feeders, so be aware of the potential risk.
Keep it healthy
Feeding concentrates animals so that disease can be easily spread. As unpleasant as this may sound, the truth is that more wildlife means more defecation, and more poop leads to a greater threat of illness. It’s important for us to clean all feeders and feeder areas regularly. Another thing to consider is that deer are browsers and primarily eat the tips or new growth of plants and trees. If you give them hay when winter conditions are already severe, they may eat it, but still may starve. It takes their digestive systems weeks to adjust to this different forage, so they may not gain the nourishment they need.
Keep your distance
Wildlife often do not fear humans once they are used to being fed, and if they are not fed as anticipated, they can become aggressive, whether it’s squirrels, coyotes, raccoons, bears, or a moose. WDFW officials often have to euthanize certain animals due to their aggressive behavior, lack of fear, and threat to humans.
The food chain
A concentration of any type of wildlife on your property can attract predators. Owls or hawks can attack the songbirds we love to feed; and other larger predators such as coyotes, black bears, or even mountain lions can get too close for comfort. Deer are the primary prey for cougars, so by encouraging deer, you may be luring a cougars to your yard.
You may like having wildlife in your backyard, but your neighbor may not. Keep your wildlife feeding habits compatible to the area where you live.
Luers reminds us that “They (wildlife) are all well-equipped with their basic instincts for finding food. People are not saving wildlife by feeding them. Occasionally there is an extreme event, such as a wildfire that completely destroys the winter habitat of deer. In these rare occurrences, the WDFW sometimes feeds to help a herd through winter.”
In other words, wildlife does not need our help.
“We recognize and appreciate the interest and overall good intentions of people wanting to feed wildlife,” Luers adds. “So, if you feel you must feed them, please call us (Fish and Wildlife) so we can offer the best recommendations.”