The Truth Behind Feeding Wildlife

February 15, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

Wildlife management is pretty good science, but it is not always an exact science. We do the best we can with the knowledge and research we have, but sometimes, we don’t have all the answers. And sometimes, the answers change based on new research and knowledge.

Such is the case with the historical practice of feeding wildlife – deer, birds and just about everything in between. This practice was once embraced by most wildlife professionals, but over the course of time what was once the standard is now being refined.

The traditional thought process seemed logical. The components needed to sustain wildlife through a harsh Midwest winters haven’t changed. Food, water, shelter and space – not necessarily in that order – are all required to varying degrees, depending on the species and climatic conditions.

For concerned humans, food and water for wildlife were more easily provided, while cover and space were more time consuming and costly and thus not considered as easy or economical to put into practice. In fact, most people felt that providing additional winter food would compensate for a general lack of adequate winter cover and space.

The not so pretty results

Years of artificial feeding provided results. Sure, successes of dozens of roosters and hens pecking at feed during bone-chilling January freezes were proudly reported, but that’s not a complete report. Pheasants and even song birds were found dead with full crops (stomachs). Dead from exposure to snow and cold, even when the feeders were full. Over time it became evident that more than food was needed to keep them alive.

I’ve seen deer gathered around feeders and figured they’d be fine to make it until the spring thaw. But what you don’t see if you’re not watching all the time is that when deer are drawn out of suitable cover and artificially concentrated around corn piles and alfalfa bales, the natural pecking order keeps needed nutrients from young of the year, which can possibly lead to increased mortality.

Just last winter, a neighbor reported a great horned owl lurking near her bird feeder. The predatory bird realized the feeder was drawing in smaller birds and provided a gathering point. The owl conserved energy by simply waiting and watching until an opportune moment, and then with oh-so-quiet owl-like stealth, it imposed a death sentence on many unsuspecting songbirds.

This is a great example of a well-intentioned bird feeder perhaps causing more harm than good, and it helps summarize the current developing theory on feeding: It may be good for an individual or a few animals, but it does little for the overall health of a species.

Congregating species with artificial food sources can even increase the potential for transmission of sickness and disease.

The bottom line, after years of scrutiny and research, is that natural food plots, with suitable winter cover nearby, is best for wildlife management.

Alternative to feeding

So what are the alternatives? If I could paint a picture, it would include those needed habitat components in as natural a setting as possible. For pheasants and big game, picture a couple rows of standing grain adjacent to a shelterbelt and thick CRP type grass cover near cattail sloughs.
Such a setting is much preferred to piles of grain dumped in the middle of a frozen, snow covered fallowed field a long way from any shelter from the numbing winter wind.

In back yards, consider a total landscaping practice involving planted Maxmillian sunflowers, and berry producing plants and vines. An array of wildflowers will draw insects, which will in turn naturally attract song birds and other watchable wildlife during the warm months.

So is the “new” philosophy perfect? Probably not. Is it set in stone? Same answer. However, most scientists and biologists agree that for the welfare of species as a whole, it’s the best recommendation given the research and knowledge we’ve got to work with.


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