Feeding wildlife in the Land Between
The Land Between is home to diverse natural landscapes full of nautre's sights and sounds. Its marvels attract people from all over the world who visit here with the hopes of experiencing nature up close and personal. Many people say that they love wildlife and express this love through FOOD! However, when it comes to caring for wildlife, feeding them is not the way to help. In fact, in our now modern, globalized, and complex world doing so can actually cause significant damage to wildlife and their habitats. The reality is that feeding wildlife has numerous consequences of which most of us are unaware. These consequences include negative impacts on animals' health, behaviour, survival and ultimately integrity of entire natural systems!
For instance, when we feed deer, and especially if we feed deer bread and worse, towards autumn, we are impacting their metabolisms. During this time, under natural conditions, their metabolisms would normally be slowing down in preparation for the long winter, however, the carbohydrates from bread keep their systems running at a "high" level. This heightened metabolic activity then prevents them from storing the necessary fat that they need to navigate colder days. Bread also changes their gut flora and can make them sick. In addition, when deer become reliant on or expect food provided by humans, they begin congregating near where humans live. This increased proximity causes deer to lose their natural fear of us which can lead to more aggressive behaviour towards humans, and causes increased rates of road strikes. Artificial feeding of deer can also change their natural feeding patterns and population abundance, causing certain areas to become overgrazed. Deer and other organisms are also important for native species seed dispersal (bringing seed from one area to another); however when feeds contain foreign seed species, deer can actually help to spread invasive species. Finally, because deer are moving out of forests, other predators, such as wolves and coyotes, are changing their patterns to find food. Thus, entire forest ecosystems can be affected simply by feeding deer! So, next time you considering feeding wildlife remember the age old saying "Fed is Dead".
When wanting to experience the beauty and beings of the Land Between we must be conscientious of the impacts that our behaviour has on this last wilderness expanse of southern Ontario. Choose to interact with wildlife in other ways such as by observing their behaviour with humility and providing/creating natural habitat! What more can I do to attract wildlife without feeding them? Jump ahead to: Alternatives to artificially feeding wildlife
Negative impacts of feeding wildlife
Feeding wildlife can have lasting consequences on ecosystems. Listed below are some common negative impacts that will be addressed in this page:
- Changes in population dynamics and a reduction of biodiversity
- Feeding animals can make them sick or worse: Fed is Dead
- Desensitization to humans
- Increased numbers of small predators like raccoons
- Increased risk of disease transfer
- Migration delays
- Introduction of invasive/foreign species
1. Changes in population dynamics and a reduction of biodiversity: Feeding animals nutritious food (that they are able to adequately digest) generally increases their reproductive success. This means that the animals or species benefiting from artificial feeding by humans will have more surviving offspring which effectively increases that species population. These increases shift species population dynamics because more individuals are surviving than would normally under natural conditions. When this happens, habitats can become overpopulated and the fed species can actually start harming the ecosystem and survivorship of other species. For example, an increase in white tailed deer (a species that people commonly feed) populations often causes the defoliation (removal of all leaves) and death of certain plant species. This is especially true for forest floor plants such as wild ginseng read more about this Species At Risk here) and can even result in some species (plants and/or the species that rely on these plants) being completely removed from their historical habitats. Moreover, heightened amounts of grazing gives preference to species that are able to grow quickly after being eaten, which again changes the forest's natural species composition. In short, feeding wildlife can cause reductions and changes in the biodiversity of an area because its habitat is no longer suitable for certain species that used to call it home.
However, it is important to note that for threatened, endangered and species at risk, feeding can help increase their survival rate and help to sustain populations. For example, the presence of feeders was found to help support populations of hummingbirds whose numbers were in decline.
2. Feeding animals can make them sick or worse - Fed is Dead: Wild animals have evolved to have specific diets which consist of native plants, seeds and organisms. These native species fulfill wildlife's nutritional needs and digestive requirements. Unfortunately however, human-made feed mixes (including bread) often consist of non-native seeds/ingredients of poor nutritional value or foods that are incompatible with native wildlife's digestive systems (which means that they will not be able to digest and extract the nutrients from the feed). Consumption of this food can result in animals feeling satiated (full), but they are full on "junk food". For example, a you (a human) may enjoy eating a bag of potato chips for every meal and may also feel full and content after doing so, however there is very little nutritional value in this food, and you would eventually become sick. It is the same for animals. The negative health consequences of consuming feed is found in many different kinds of wildlife such as numerous species of birds and Cervidaes (deer species).
3. Desensitization to humans can lead to aggression and road strikes: The more time animals spend near us, the more comfortable they become with our presence, causing them to lose their natural fear of humans. This can create problems as it increases the likelihood of animals' aggressive behaviour towards humans. In addition, increased comfort with and proximity to humans means increased presence on roads and risk of road strikes.
4. Increased numbers of small predators like raccoons and skunks: This point is particularity relevant for deer fed. Many small predators are opportunistic and will eat any food that they can find. When deer feed is placed in the environment, these predators are able to benefit from access to easy food. This increases their populations which negatively impacts the survivorship of ground nesting egg laying species such as turtles and turkeys (eggs are small predators favourite food!).
5. Increased risk of disease transfer: Under natural conditions different groups/populations of a species remain separated due to food availability and territorial claims. This separation helps to keep ecosystems healthy and populations isolated from each other's illnesses. Feeding animals can increase the risk of deadly disease transfer between individuals because animals gather at artificial feeding sites in higher concentrations than usual.
6. Feeding can delay or prevent migration: Many species migrate from summer to winter grounds in the fall in order to maintain access to food and hospitable habitat. However, when feeding occurs, animals are more likely to stay in their summer range longer than they should or decide not to migrate at all. This often makes them reliant on the human feeding which means they may die if the feeding stops (in the winter).
7. Invasive/foreign species introduction: In nature, birds and rodents eat lots of fruit and seeds. After visiting a plant for a meal, seeds will often hitch a ride on these animals and travel to a new area to grow. This transfer can happen in many ways including seeds getting stuck on feathers or fur, animals being messy eaters or undigested seeds entering the environment through an animals feces. Thus, animals are major contributors to seed dispersal which is a very important part of maintaining healthy ecosystems when these seeds are native species. However, when these plants are not native this becomes an issue that actually harms nature.
Most bird and animal feeds contain non-native seeds. Thus, when wild animals consume them, the foreign, and potentially invasive, plant species becomes distributed in the environment which threatens native biodiversity (number of different native species). Not only does this effect plant biodiversity, but it can also impact the biodiversity of insects, birds and mammals that rely on native plants and the pristine natural landscapes of the Land Between. For example, a feed may be contaminated with some non-native mustard seeds which a bird then eats and deposits in a far away forest. These seeds then grow and the mustard starts to outcompete native species resulting in their death removal from the area. When that happens, any animal that relies on those native plants will also leave the area. Thus, decreasing biodiversity. Unlike other countries, such as Australia and many in Europe, Canada currently has no regulations on bird seed unless it contains niger oilseed. Therefore, most are not devitalized, meaning that they can germinate and potentially grow in our soils.
Feeding wild birds
Okay so, I understand that feeding deer can be bad, but what about birds? Artificial feeding of any species can have the negative effects mentioned above. However, unlike deer and raccoons, many bird populations are declining and may be aided by human supplemented feeding. In fact, some research suggests that bird feeders can be used to aid in conservation efforts. For example, hummingbird feeders appear to be playing an important role in supporting or even increasing populations (many hummingbird species are currently in decline).
How to stop feed and bird seed from germinating
The best option to ensure that your feed seed will not germinate is to purchase sunflower chips or feed where all seeds are labeled as "devitilised" (this means that they will not germinate. As a result of lack a of regulation in the market, many animal feed seeds will germinate (if not treated) which can cause the spread of invasive species (as previously mentioned) and increase the occurrence of nuisance plants on your property. Thus, it is important that we, the public, take on the responsibility of ensuring that feed seeds are unable to germinate. The process of devitilizing seeds easy and quick:
- Preheat the oven to 120ºC
- Place seeds on a baking tray and leave them in the oven for 15 minutes (this is the treatment required by the USDA for all niger seed imports)
- Remove seeds from the oven, allow them to cool, and then store (or place in feeders)
Do heat treatments influence the nutritional value of seeds?
Heating does have some influence on the nutritional value of seeds, but usually it is by small amount. Most of the time such alterations are not necessarily "bad". For example, heat treatments have been found to sometimes increase the amount of protein available in a seed, but may reduce the quantity of vitamins by a few percentage points. It is also important to remember that the heat treatment of seeds is a very common practice already in place for peanuts and almost all seeds consumed by humans, yet they still remain very nutritious foods!
Alternatives to artificial feeding
If the goal of feeding wildlife is to enjoy nature up close and help animals, then there are many ways to do this without artificially feeding them! For example, one great method is to create high quality habitat for wildlife by keeping/making your property as natural as possible. An easy way to do this is to plant and maintain only native species.
Different wildlife have different diet and plant preferences. Instead of using store bought feed, consider doing some research on the favourite natural foods of your desired species and then plant all their tasty favourites! This will save you from having to purchase feed every year and will help to support the whole ecosystem not just your targeted species! Below are some favourite foods of a few species that people love:
- White-tailed deer: Deer love acorns! Plant oak trees (which produce acorns) on your property to attract deer
- Chickadees, cardinals, white-breasted nuthatches, and sparrows: Plant lots of native wildflowers like black-eyed susan's
- Blue jays: Plant oak, hazel and beech trees! Blue jays love acorns, hazelnuts and beechnuts
Want to learn more about the health of your property and how you to attract wildlife? Sign up for one of our Highland Habitat Checkups to do just that!
Written by Fallon Hayes: Communications and Education Specialist
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