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Feeding Wildlife in the Winter

During winter it is often a wonder to humans how wildlife can thrive in our cold and snowy conditions. However, species have continuously adapted to these conditions learning how to keep warm, find food, and even naturally alter their feeding habits during this season. 

It is common for people to feed wildlife and while they have good intentions, more often than not it does more harm than good and can have detrimental and even fatal effects. 

Feeding Wild Birds

For many people, winter signifies the time to put bird feeders in their yard and bring nature closer. By this time, food sources for many birds have become scarce, and lower temperatures mean birds need a lot more food to maintain their body temperature. Many bird species will have food caches throughout the area to last them through the winter and also feed on other food sources they find which might include fruit bushes, tree cones, and old flowerheads.  Incredibly, some species have evolved to have their hippocampus grow in size during the winter in order to remember all of their seed cache locations!

When used correctly, bird feeders can supplement birds’ diet to get through this challenging season, and enhance our appreciation for nature. However, if you choose to feed birds, you have the high responsibility to do it right. Poorly managed bird feeders have the potential to cause more harm than good to our feathered friends!

If you are going to put out a bird feeder here’s how to do it properly.  

Don’t let your feeders spread disease

If the wrong bird feeders are being used or they aren’t maintained properly it can increase the risk of diseases spreading between birds. Follow these tips to prevent disease spread at your bird feeder:

  • Weekly, scrub debris off feeders and then soak for 10 minutes in a diluted bleach solution. 
  • Smaller feeders are ideal! They reduce contact rates by only allowing a few birds to feed at a time. Small feeders also empty quickly which ensures there’s always fresh seed. 
  • Feeders should always keep seeds from getting wet. Allowing birds to perch away from the food avoids fecal contamination.
  • If an outbreak is detected remove feeders until the danger has passed.
Feed the right food

Each species has different needs. Research food and feeder types to best suit the birds in your backyard! Provide high-quality birdseed and avoid “filler” seeds (such as millet, oats, wheat, and flax) as main ingredients. Filler seeds will be discarded by wild birds, and also promote spoilage and fungal growth while attracting unwanted species. Black-oil sunflower seeds are the top choice among most birds and suet is great in the winter months. 

Feed birds naturally

By gardening with native plants that produce seeds, cones, and fruit, you can provide food for winter birds while also creating habitat year round for many species! Check out the Best for the Biosphere plant list for ideas and leave your garden maintenance until the spring! Native planting also helps support insect, pollinator, and bat populations too!

Prevent window collisions

 Look at your house’s windows from the feeder. If you see branches or sky reflected on them, this could cause window collisions. It is recommended to place bird feeders either less than one meter or more than 10 meters away from buildings. Make your windows bird friendly! An easy and beautiful way to stop collisions is to place visual markers on your windows. Many use art that can hang in front of or stick to the window. 

Carefully consider the placement of bird feeders 

To prevent birds from being attacked by predators, strategic placement is essential. Bird feeders should be positioned with the intention of keeping an easy escape for birds while making it challenging for predators to attack or hide. Ideally, they should be no more than 3.5 meters from cover, providing a quick route for birds to escape potential threats. Additionally, maintaining an unobstructed view around bird feeders is vital, allowing foraging birds to detect any predators in the vicinity. For feeders at lower levels, surrounding them with brush or fencing helps to prevent predator access.

Keep your cat indoors or supervised when outside 

Did you know that the saliva of our feline friends is toxic to birds? Even a small bite can be fatal. Outdoor and feral cats contribute to millions of bird deaths in Canada alone. Cats are both hunters and prey so taking precautions (such as supervised outdoor time and leash training) will not only save wildlife but keep your feline friend healthy and happy too.  Encourage your neighbors to do the same to reduce songbird and other wildlife predation. 

Feeding Mammals During the Winter 

Often people want to help wildlife like deer by feeding them. Although the intention is good the result is usually harmful. 

Improper diets

Foods not found in their typical diet often lead to digestive issues and potentially death. A variety of feeding diseases have been documented for deer that are fed inadequate diets. Interference with normal seasonal declines in activity and food intake occurs if supplementary food is supplied. This could result in increased energy demands that offset the advantages of supplying artificial food.

Road Injury

Feeding encourages wildlife to come into residential areas with traffic. This can significantly increase the number of wildlife involved in accidents, leading to property damage, injury or even death.

Disease and Illness

 Wildlife congregating and feeding from the same source has been known to lead to the spread of illnesses like chronic wasting disease in deer. In areas where deer and moose populations overlap, such as here in eastern Georgian Bay, increases in disease transfer also leads moose to be susceptible to illness when visiting or crossing these feeding sites. Feeding wildlife can also have negative health consequences for humans as it has the potential to expose you to wildlife conflict injury, illnesses that could be transferred from wildlife or their feces, etc. 

Negative wildlife interactions  

Studies have shown high levels of aggression and fighting between wildlife occurring at feeding sites. Increased aggression and competition over food, wastes vital energy reserves which can lead to injury or death. When it comes to humans, fed wildlife tend to lose fear of humans and will approach people more often. While these ‘disney-like’ moments can feel special, they can lead to dangerous situations for both people and wildlife. It’s important to keep our wildlife wild. 

Negatively impact vegetation and habitat

In areas with feeders, animals congregate at higher levels than the natural food can support. Even though they are being fed, they continue to browse on natural food eventually eliminating it almost entirely. The effect of winter feeding on deer density is a big concern. “Deer numbers that are too high for food supplies during normal winters will eventually result in herds that deplete forage supplies, have lowered survival and productivity and smaller body size. All of these factors can lead to future herds that are smaller where range conditions are poor and deer that are more susceptible to large winter losses. A situation may be created where deer become dependent on human provided food.” 

So, What Can You Do?

The best way to help wildlife in the winter is to step back and allow the animals to do their thing. Keeping wildlife wild is very important to their survival and health. 

To help wildlife in your area, focus on improving the wildlife habitat on your property! Plant natural food and cover (e.g., some conifer cover and regenerating forest or brushy habitat) where you can. It is also important that wildlife populations are in balance with what the habitat can support.

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