Feeding Wildlife During Winter

February 20, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

Nobody wants to see wildlife starve. It happens sometimes, but even in a winter such as this, not as much as most people think.

Even in mild winters, Game and Fish is asked about feeding animals, and over time the response to such questions has changed.

Historically, winter feeding of wildlife – big game animals, game birds and songbirds — was once embraced by many wildlife professionals. 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 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.

Even the mildest of North Dakota winters have periods of extreme cold that threaten some wild animals. Pheasants and even song birds are found dead with full crops, succumbing to snow and cold, even when feeders are full. Over time it has become evident that more than food was needed to improve winter wildlife survival.

Back in 1996-97, when I was working as a game warden in the Bottineau area, I saw 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 even if adequate feed is provided. The big and strong act like the class bully when the piñata breaks, hording the goodies while the others struggle for even a morsel.

A couple years back, a neighbor reported a great-horned owl was lurking near her bird feeder. The predatory bird realized the feeder was drawing in smaller birds and provided a gathering point. The owl in the city was conserving 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 and in some cases is actually worse for the population as a whole.

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.

This same philosophy was recently endorsed by Pheasants Forever, the national upland game and habitat conservation organization. “Our first thought may be, ‘those pheasants are going to starve if I don’t feed them,’” said Jesse Beckers, PF’s regional wildlife biologist in North Dakota, in a Jan. 22 news release. “But is this the limiting factor when it comes to pheasants surviving harsh winter conditions? The answer is no. It all comes down to habitat, namely good winter cover. A pheasant that starves to death is rare, and most will die of exposure or predators long before starvation.”

I’ve always advocated providing any available alternatives and 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 few rows of standing grain adjacent to a shelterbelt, and thick grass cover near cattail-ringed wetlands.

Such settings are much preferred to piles of grain dumped in the middle of a frozen, snow-covered field a long way from any shelter from the numbing winter wind.

So is the “new” philosophy perfect? Probably not, and many will argue their points to justify feeding wildlife. 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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