By Laura Nagy and Dave Wood
“Oh, isn’t he beautiful? And look, the poor thing is cold and hungry.” Yes, winter can be hard on our wildlife neighbors, but think again before you decide to offer them food. You may be doing them more harm than good. The animals that live in Eastman are endemic to our environment. Their bodies and behaviors are well adapted to their place in the ecosystem.
White-tailed deer, for example, wander widely during the summer, browsing predominantly on leaves and grasses—materials that are rich in simple carbohydrates—and they utilize the abundance of high-energy food to fatten their bodies. As winter approaches and snow begins to cover the ground, their range shrinks and their browse changes to woody materials, such as hobble bush buds and the bark of striped maple. By mid-winter, deep snows may restrict the herd to a “deer yard,” the sheltered, relatively snow-free patches within a grove of hemlock. By this time deer are fairly inactive, eating very little and depending upon limited evergreen browse and their fat stores to get them through the winter.
“Poor things! Why not put a bale of hay or some dried corn in the back yard to help them out?” The answer: because it could kill them. Deer are ruminants; they have a four-chambered stomach populated by bacteria and protozoa that make it possible for them to digest cellulose-rich foods. The composition of the microbial populations changes slowly as the deer’s seasonal diet changes, and by mid-winter the balance of microbial species has been optimized for the digestion of woody material. Gorging on any low-fiber, high carbohydrate food, such as hay, corn or apples, can be lethal because the animal simply cannot digest that material at that time of year.
This past March, New Hampshire Fish and Game found 12 dead deer within 100 yards of each other in South Hampton. Necropsy showed that they had died as a result of supplemental feeding with corn. These animals are likely to have died from toxins released from Clostridia, but in other cases the rapid fermentation of the food releases lactic acid, and the animal dies of metabolic acidosis.
Another danger to the deer from supplemental feeding is that drawing them out of their deer yard may require them to navigate the deep snow and use more calories than they can regain by eating the supplemental food. Worse, if the feeding is erratic, they may make the journey to no avail. The supplemental feeding also exposes the animals to encounters with cars on icy roads. Finally, attracting deer from different herds to a feeding station increases their potential for exposure to communicable diseases.
“If not deer, why shouldn’t I feed my neighborhood fox?” While wild canines don’t have the dietary restrictions that endanger deer, putting out food can also cause a number of problems that ultimately threaten these animals. Eastman’s forests represent excellent fox habitat, and foxes are often seen in our backyards or along roadsides. Nevertheless, attracting foxes too close to homes habituates them to humans, taking away one of their natural defenses.
In addition, the food that attracts foxes may well attract other, less welcome visitors, notably coyotes. Attracting coyotes near your house is a danger to you, your pets, and the foxes themselves. Currently the top predators in our area, coyotes are generalist feeders and highly opportunistic; that means they will prey on cats and small dogs as well as the scraps or dog food intended for the smaller, less problematic foxes. In addition, coyotes are highly territorial and will kill foxes that stray into what they consider their turf. If a coyote catches an interloper at your feeding station, the fox you think you’re helping may in fact be exposed to injury or even death.
The lesson that you unintentionally teach the foxes is dangerous. Intermittent conditioning—the occasional rewarding of a behavior—can be a very powerful training tool for any animal. If there’s food in a spot once or twice, the fox will continue to look there on the chance that it will reappear. This habit could continue into spring, when pups are born and fox pairs are feeding many mouths. Thus the food you put out in winter, but stop providing in spring, could result in a fruitless trip and wasted energy for the foxes. In addition, the parents may be teaching their young to look for handouts, which perpetuates habituation and could discourage them from learning hunting skills.
Let’s not forget about skunks and raccoons. They do inhabit Eastman and are notorious scavengers. Both animals can carry diseases—including rabies—that are very dangerous to humans.
While we do empathize with the hardships that winter presents to the beautiful animals around us, those rigors serve a purpose in regulating their populations. Without a natural culling process, we could end up with more animals than our forest system can support, ultimately reducing the viability of the critters that do survive through to spring. Like it or not, old or sick creatures need to not make it through the cold months because their demise prevents overpopulation and undue competition for resources.
So, though it may seem humane to provide handouts, it’s both unwise and unsafe for the long-term well-being of the species that live in the woods around us.
The bottom line is: Please don’t feed our wild animals!
Laura Nagy is a writer and college educator who enjoys learning about wild things. She is currently working on a book about the extermination of wolves in the American West. She is a member of the Sustainable Eastman Committee and the Grantham Conservation Commission.
Dave Wood, Ph.D., is a retired biochemist who worked in research in the pharmaceutical industry. With a life-long interest in field and laboratory biology, he currently chairs the Woodlands & Wildlife Committee and serves on the Grantham Conservation Commission.