Winter got off to a very warm start but as always winter cold and snow has arrived. After watching all this record amount snow piling up many people question whether it is necessary to feed deer and other wildlife.
Supplemental feeding is not necessary to sustain wildlife populations and most wildlife experts advise against it. Backyard bird feeding during winter months is acceptable as long as the birds are fed until warmer weather becomes apparent in spring. People should keep in mind that deer and other wildlife are wild animals and have adapted to cope to the sometimes harsh winter weather, including deep snow, cold temperatures and high winds.
Supplemental wildlife feeding does not include leaving unharvested crops, or food feeders used for baiting wildlife for hunting purposes. The baiting of wildlife should not be allowed anywhere period.
Deer especially do not need human assistance for survival, even in the worst winter conditions. They have evolved for millennia without a human-supplied food source and will continue to thrive. Wildlife lovers are encouraged to enjoy their presence passively and allow them to live as the wild animals they are.
Feeding of wild deer is especially undesirable because:
Feeding increases reproductive potential. Deer with higher nutrition levels have larger litter sizes and breed earlier. Does dependent solely upon natural food sources generally breed at 1.5 years of age and give birth to a single fawn. Does with supplemental food breed at 6 months of age and give birth to one fawn; 1.5 year-olds generally have twins, and triplets are not uncommon in older does.
Deer lose their fear of humans. Deer are considered a “potentially dangerous species” because of their ability to inflict serious physical harm to humans with their hooves and antlers. Male deer become more aggressive during the breeding season, and females may become defensive of their fawns. If one has ever stumbled upon a female with fawns unexpectantly while on a trail that won’t flee or back down, they can surely relate to this.
Feeding enhances the spread of disease and parasites and may compromise the health of non-target species. Concentrating deer in unnaturally high numbers around food piles increases nose-to-nose contact and may heighten the transmission of pathogens and parasites. Additionally, large piles of supplemental foods like corn often develop toxic fungi, which cause ill effects to both deer and other animals that come to the food pile.
Deer feeders are bad neighbors. Deer cannot meet all their nutritional needs from a food pile, and will consume the plantings of surrounding properties or devastate the surrounding natural environment after the supplemental food is consumed. Because feeding concentrates deer in unnaturally high numbers, environmental damage is often severe.
Feeding can change behavioral patterns. Feeding may cause deer to cross roadways they normally would not, increasing the potential for deer-vehicle collisions.
Feeding can sicken and kill deer. Deer, like most animals, have symbiotic microorganisms in their digestive system which enable them to break down the cellulose found in plant matter. As the seasons slowly change from one to another, so too do these organisms change to accommodate the change in available natural foods. When deer are fed high carbohydrate foods out of season they lack the necessary gut microflora to digest these foods. This can result in a condition known as lactic acidosis, which causes bloating, diarrhea, enteritis, and in some cases, death.
So please, do not feed deer, they do not need our help. Supplemental feeding for deer survivability is completely unnecessary. Additionally, deer adapt physiologically and behaviorally to winter. In the fall, deer deposit subcutaneous fat and replace the summer coat with a highly insulted winter coat. In winter, metabolism slows to conserve fat reserves, and behavior is modified to be less active and to seek sheltered areas during extreme weather.
Some states have banned the feeding of deer as a preventative measure to prevent the spread of disease even before Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) had been found; other states have banned feeding in reaction to the discovery of CWD. CWD was found in New York in 2005, with no recurrences to date. CWD is active in West Virginia, and has been found in Virginia in 2010, Maryland in 2011, and Pennsylvania in 2012.
Feeding wildlife, whether the activity is intended for birds or deer, can draw in unwanted species such as geese, raccoons, coyotes and bears into the area. Once bears become habituated to an area where they find food, they will continue to return, which is when the bear can become a real problem for homeowners and neighbors. Bears can cause conflicts, property damage and the possibility of injury or eventual destruction of themselves by authorities.
Remember that even during winter when bears hibernate they do occasionally come out of their dens; especially if there are warm periods as we have had this winter.
Disturbing is the fact that people intentionally feed bears to make them more visible for viewing or photographing. Since 2003, it has been illegal to intentionally feed bears in Pennsylvania. Unintentional feeding of bears which results in nuisance bear activity can result in a written warning that, if ignored, may lead to a citation and fine. Too often, complaints about bears can be traced back to intentional or unintentional feeding.
People should reconsider putting out corn for squirrels; pumpkins, corn stalks or other certain holiday decorations outside which could attract bears. Even bird feeders can become “bear magnets.” To safely feed birds for those in prime bear areas include: restrict feeding season to when bears hibernate, which is primarily from late November through late March; avoid foods that are particularly attractive for bears, such as sunflower seeds, hummingbird nectar mixes or suet; bring feeders inside at night or suspend them high; and temporarily remove feeders for two weeks if visited by a bear. Encourage your neighbors to do the same.