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Chill on feeding winter wildlife

Thu., Dec. 25, 2008

Here’s some food for thought about wintering wildlife struggling through deep snow and frigid temperatures:

Think spring.

People can do more good during spring landscaping and planting – and taking a stand against habitat destruction – than they can in winter when their hearts want to pour out grain and hay to birds and Bambi.

Generally speaking, now is too late for doing the critters much good this winter.

“We’re getting the calls,” said Don Larson, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department habitat specialist. “When you get a winter like this, wildlife becomes highly visible and people expect the state to start taking care of them.

“We hear it all. They suggest putting out feeders and even dumping corn from airplanes.”

People don’t stop to think about the consequences of putting out feed for the region’s birds and wild animals, much less the logistics and the expense, he said.

For example, feeding can congregate wildlife where they’re more susceptible to disease, predation and other dangers.

With deep snow paralyzing the region, critters are looking for the path of least resistance. In the natural world, that would be their own trails, stream sides and wind-blown south-facing slopes and ridges, which just happen to be prime real estate for modern trophy homes.

Instead, they tend to follow human-oriented plowed roads, packed trails and barnyards.

Wildlife is obvious this week, and it’s normal to want to help.

Big game will eat most feed that’s put out, but research has shown they can’t necessarily digest and get nutrition out of it.

Poorly thought out feeder location can lure deer and elk across roads, increasing the potential for collisions with vehicles.

A state-run feeding station for bighorn sheep was shut down at Sullivan Lake several years ago after cougars homed in on the free sheep smorgasbord.

Similarly, goshawks, great horned owls, coyotes, domestic cats and other predators quickly catch on to the easy meals around poorly located bird feeders where there’s not enough escape cover.

Wintering pheasants, quail and other game birds stir a lot of emotion, Larson said, noting that a large group of plumped-up pheasants on a snow bank by the side of the road will capture a flock of attention.

Suet feeders and regularly cleaned seed feeders and a water source that won’t freeze can be a boon to songbirds, but Larson said it’s not possible or even recommended to feed game birds in the field.

“Documented cases of pheasants starving to death are extremely rare, even in the Dakotas, which experience winters that typically are much more severe,” he said.

“Nearly all pheasant winter mortality can be attributed to the lack of adequate winter habitat. Pheasants have died from freezing or suffocation when they are caught away from good cover in windy, snowy conditions, (but these birds that die) from exposure generally have plenty of fat reserves. Lack of food is not an issue.”

Severe winter conditions can be expected to reduce bird numbers in areas lacking suitable habitat, he said.

This is something to think about anytime you see woody cover being burned or demolished.

On the other hand, Larson said, “Pheasants have tremendous reproductive potential and populations can bounce back quickly, especially if quality nesting and brood-rearing habitat is available.”

This is the way nature designed them. “Even under the best of conditions, only about 30 percent of pheasants survive past their first birthday,” he said.

More food for thought:

•Leave them be: Big game and many other wild creatures will expend precious energy if they are forced to move around in the region’s deep snow conditions. Keep dogs and cats indoors and avoid snowmobiling and other travel in winter range where you’ll force deer, elk and moose out of the trails they have broken through the snow to reach feeding areas.

•Get involved with creating habitat: Contact Larson by e-mail, or your area Natural Resources Conservation Service.

You can contact Rich Landers by voice mail at 459-5577, extension 5508, or e-mail to

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