Feeding Wildlife in the Winter

February 2, 2011 by  

By Doug Leier

I haven’t checked my archives, but even if I wrote last year about the human desire to feed wildlife during a difficult winter, it’s a topic that bears another look.

Years ago in specific scenarios, feeding of wildlife didn’t send up red flags to biologists. Nowadays, however, the best information available tells us that feeding of wildlife accomplishes little more than helping us humans feel good. For animals, the perceived benefit is quickly covered like the end of a driveway after the snowplow goes by.

Deer Baiting

Deer Baiting has it's drawbacks

With decades of cumulative research to draw from, you’ll be hard pressed to find a biologist today who will quickly and categorically endorse artificial feeding.

That said, it seems unlikely that feeding of wildlife will end, nor do I expect people will dig a path to their back yard to retrieve their bird feeder. But I won’t change the message, either.

The best scenario for wildlife is to begin winter with suitable winter cover, coupled with an abundant, naturally occurring food source. These elements for survival are best established months or even years ahead of time.

First, consider that deer, pheasants, grouse and partridge going into this winter were either survivors of the past two winters, or prodigy of adults that survived the last two winters, both of which were long on snow and short warm temperatures.

While the natural cycle of the strong surviving and weak perishing can result in immediate mortality, the surviving population may have a genetic advantage.

That may not mean less mortality in 2010-11, but I can point out how these animals may have an advantage compared to those that were around heading into the winter of 2008.

Along with stronger genes, populations of several resident species have declined the last two years. In addition to winter mortality, the Game and Fish Department was also, through increased licenses, trying to bring the deer herd back into target ranges.

Winter pheasant losses came at the same time thousands of acres of Conservation Reserve Program grasslands were converted back to cropland. While CRP doesn’t typically have all that much beneficial winter cover for pheasants, the nesting habitat it provides is essential. The state’s pheasant population would not have grown as much as it did without CRP, and it won’t likely return to levels of five years ago unless we see a net gain in CRP acres from what exists today.

While we all like to see high wildlife populations, the odds of any one individual animal surviving a difficult winter are improved if populations are smaller. Reduction in cover and natural food sources in winter creates competition, which compounds winter stress.

Lower populations mean less competition, though strong and healthy pheasants or deer are still the most likely to get their share of food. In the wildlife world, each animal must eventually fend for itself. The greater the competition, the more likely that the sick or weak will be squeezed out.

When humans try to help, sometimes there are unintended consequences. I’ve seen the backyard birding scenario play out first hand, where a neighbor was maintaining a backyard bird feeder. While they enjoyed the songbirds, the activity attracted a great-horned owl that perched nearby.

The redpolls attracted to the feeder eventually provided a ready food source for the owl … another example that our efforts to feed wildlife, even on a small scale, do not always product the desired results, and often do more harm than good.

Leier is a biologist with the Game & Fish Department. He can be reached by email: [email protected]


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