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The wisdom, or not, of feeding wild critters

by Bob Bancroft

The woman on the phone was quite agitated. She lived alone in a rural area, and confessed, “One evening two years ago I saw a cute little raccoon on the front porch, so I put food out for it. Now a dozen or more raccoons arrive every sunset. If I don’t feed them straight away, they growl, beat on the door, and climb the screen. They scare me; what should I do?”

It’s wise to temper your thoughts about feeding wildlife with some reflection about your reasoning. Reacting emotionally could do them a disservice. If you decide to feed, research their food requirements. Folks who toss white bread to wild ducks or geese in parks come to mind (harmful because it’s nutritionally useless but fills the birds up so they risk malnourishment). Many wild animals that link people with food will face troublesome, perhaps shortened, lives.

Black bears or coyotes with food expectations will confront strangers who usually fail to understand what’s going on. When no food is proffered, the situation sometimes quickly deteriorates. The offending animal is labelled a nuisance, its new habit is nearly impossible to break, and authorities kill them.

This kind of misunderstanding trickles all the way down the food chain to black-capped chickadees. If they’re trained to land on one’s hand for sunflower seeds, the bird, assuming that anyone will feed it, flies elsewhere and lights upon unexpected hands. Chickadees can be easily injured if a surprised person recoils from an “attack.”

Crows, ravens, blue jays, owls and eagles are able to identify people as individuals and tend to be more careful about strangers. If you sat with my mother in the back yard, the blue jays would land and search your pockets for peanuts. She had them well-tamed, and her presence was sufficient reassurance for them. She could call to a jay that was flying over downtown Fredericton, prompting it to land on the sidewalk for a peanut from her purse.

Well-meaning folks who feed white-tailed deer may inadvertently condemn them to starve to death. White-tails have complicated, multi-compartmented stomachs that are similar to cows. In order to digest the plant material that they consume in winter, deer must have small animals called ciliates present in their stomachs. These tiny animals break down the cellulose fibres of plants that deer have eaten. Before a deer can digest its food, an initial digestion by ciliates is required.

A gradual, seasonal shift of species of ciliates in deer stomachs is needed to digest the different browse that the deer consume over that period of time. During a hard mid-winter, if deer have been starving on a diet of red maple twigs, hay provided by people may be eaten, but they are unable to digest it. If hay feeding begins in the fall and continues throughout the winter, the ciliates in deer stomachs are adapted and able to digest it.

However, that raises issues of cost and sustainability. Feeding any wildlife population to make up for habitat losses is hardly a long-term solution. In New Brunswick a need for deer feeding can be linked to the widespread practice of clear-cutting forests and, as the cut area begins to regenerate, aerial spraying of the herbicide glyphosate to kill hardwoods also commences. As former government biologist Rod Cumberland points out, hardwood foliage provides the primary source of food for white-tailed deer. The 32,000 acres of forest being sprayed every year with glyphosate represents a massive reduction in deer food.

Nutrient-deficient soils result in poor food for deer, forcing them to roam further—often into gardens.

Photo Credit: Scott Leslie

Coincidentally, the deer population in New Brunswick has fallen to a quarter of what their numbers were 30 years ago. What other wildlife species, not as closely monitored, have also declined from this change in habitat?

About half of the forested area of Nova Scotia has been clear-cut in the past 30 years. Although herbicide use is not as prevalent as in New Brunswick, clearcutting exposes soils to the drying effects of direct sunlight, increases erosion by wind and water, and accelerates the leaching and loss of residual nutrients. In Nova Scotia nutrient-deficient soils grow poor deer browse. Many white-tailed deer in both provinces, displaced by clearcutting, now inhabit better-managed private lands, towns and villages.

Atlantic coastal beaches, abounding with grasses and mice, offer an attractive place for red foxes to den and raise young. Young foxes are curious when people arrive at the beach, and often are fed picnic fare. They learn fast and subsequently approach other people for food. Sooner or later a large dog arrives with beachgoers, seizes the opportunity, and kills the unsuspecting foxes.

Bird feeding is popular with many people. Begin feeding as winter arrives, feed only appropriate foods and be consistent. Dole out early morning food quantities that will be consumed by dusk, to avoid attracting night-time rats, mice and raccoons.

Feeders concentrate songbirds, rendering them more vulnerable to avian and four-legged predators. An open area around any feeder should be maintained, positioned so predators like hawks and cats can be seen. Thick shrubs and evergreen trees planted around the perimeter of that opening can offer safe refuge for the feeder crowd whenever such predators arrive.

If your feeder is the only local food source, leaving for a month in mid- winter creates a problem. Hire someone to feed the birds during your absence, or don’t feed at all. 

Stop feeding when warm spring weather arrives, and birds can, again, find bugs and seeds in nature.

Warm temperatures facilitate the transmission of diseases like trichomonosis, a microscopic parasite that can be fatal to birds. Outbreaks spread at feeders where birds concentrate.

If you manage or own property, by far the best practice is to feeding wildlife indirectly. Plant a succession of blooming flowers for hummingbirds and bees to avoid having raccoons trash your feeders. All trees produce seeds, but consider beaked hazelnut, walnut and red oaks. Acorns attract a range of species from ruffed grouse and partridge, to wood ducks, chipmunks and black bears. Apple trees are wildlife favourites. Bushes like Canada holly and highbush cranberry, once planted, are easily distributed. Consumed, the fruit is spread in what we’ll refer to as “fertilizer packets.”

Building habitats for wildlife avoids direct feeding conflicts. Around our home, the black bears, coyotes, red foxes, bobcats, raccoons, owls, ducks and deer know us. They don’t realize that I planted all the apple trees, oaks and hazel nuts throughout the forest three decades ago. We share the same space, in part because no predatory cats or dogs reside here and we’re not aggressive towards our wildlife neighbours. It’s a good feeling when an owl or bobcat looks at you, then turns away, unconcerned by your presence.

The crows, blue jays, chipmunks, and chickadees know us as seasonal food providers. They fare better through the sparseness of winter, without scratching at the screen door.

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