Feeding just part of animal survival landscape
By Doug Leier
This practice was once embraced by most wildlife professionals, and the traditional thought process made sense to biologists, hunters and citizens. But over the course of time, what was once the standard has been reviewed. New research produced new knowledge that prompted questions future wildlife management decisions.
The variables and elements to sustain wildlife through a Midwest winter haven’t changed. Food, water, shelter and space – the four components of good habitat — are all required to varying degrees, depending on the species and climatic conditions.
For humans wanting what they view as the best for wildlife, food and water 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, years ago many people felt that providing additional winter food would compensate for a general lack of adequate winter cover and space.
But we’ve learned over the course of that time short-term results don’t create a long-term extended benefit. Years of artificial feeding no doubt provided some results, but dozens of roosters and hens pecking at feed put out by humans during deadly January freezes, while proudly reported, don’t tell the whole story.
Food is important, but without adequate winter cover, pheasants can basically freeze to death, even with a full crop. The same thing can happen to songbirds. Death from exposure to snow and cold is a much more common occurrence than death from starvation.
Think of it this way. During this early December arctic cold snap, you could have a daily free pass to a local restaurant buffet, but if you don’t have a warm place to go when you’re done eating, you’re going to have a difficult time surviving.
Over time, it’s become evident that more than food is needed to sustain wildlife populations in the long term.
And long-term viability is not measured in days or weeks, but over the course of years. A pheasant surviving through January, but dying in February or March still does not contribute to future populations.
We’ve all seen deer gathered around feeders or alfalfa bales 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 concentrated around an artificial food source, the natural pecking order keeps needed nutrients from young-of-the-year, which can lead to increased mortality.
One of my favorite examples plays out each winter when I get calls from concerned people who have a great horned owl lurking near a bird feeder. The predatory bird realizes the feeder is provided a gathering point for smaller birds.
This is a great example of a well-intentioned practice certainly causing more harm than good for individual animals, and it helps summarize the current developing theory on feeding: It may be good for an individual or a few animals, but it does not significantly contribute to overall health of a species.
The bottom line, after years of scrutiny and research, is that natural food sources, with suitable winter cover nearby, is best for wildlife management. The State Game and Fish Department is following that philosophy, and over the last decade or so has phased out man-made feeders on its wildlife management areas, and no longer actively encourages backyard bird feeding.
Next week, I’ll cover the importance of having all of the habitat elements working together.
Doug Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can reached by email:firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at dougleier.areavoices.com