Feeding winter wildlife can have deadly consequences

The Pennsylvania Game Commission recently announced that a large bull elk found dead on Jan. 9 in Byrnedale, Elk County, was likely the victim of being fed a quantity of corn.

Test results revealed the trophy 6-by-7- point bull died of rumen acidosis, a condition caused by the sudden introduction of carbohydrates into the animal’s system. The metabolisms of wild deer and elk adjust to the foods available to them as the seasons change throughout the year. Corn, wheat, barley and other grains high in carbohydrates typically aren’t part of the winter diet of deer or elk, so the animals won’t be able to digest such foods properly and eating quantities of them can be fatal. That is what happened to the bull elk.

Game Commission sources aren’t sure how the bull elk ingested the corn that killed it, but it is probable the grain was put out by a person or persons as supplemental winter food for elk or other wildlife. Feeding elk is illegal anywhere elk are found in Pennsylvania, however, and those convicted of illegally feeding wildlife face penalties that could include hundreds of dollars in fines and court costs, and additional penalties could result if artificial feeding causes the dearth of an animal.

“Most times, the best way to help wildlife make it through the winter is to step back and allow the animals’ instincts to take over,” said Cal DuBrock, director of the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management. “In a natural setting, most wildlife will change their behaviors to adapt to colder temperatures and scarcer food supplies. Supplemental feeding can alter that behavior and have detrimental, and sometimes fatal, effects.”

The harsh weather we have experienced so far this winter has increased the awareness for many folks regarding how wildlife copes with those conditions. Putting out food seems like a worthwhile and compassionate gesture, but in most cases doing so is bound to do more harm than good for any number of reasons. In short, the conventional wisdom on this winter wildlife feeding is simply “don’t do it.”

The exception, of course, is a backyard birdfeeder, which can provide hours of enjoyment watching the hardy little snowbirds that tough out the winters in this part of the country. Putting out moderate amounts of seeds, suet and other winter bird foods on a regular basis will attract numbers of feathered visitors without making them too dependent on your offerings.

Once you have attracted a colony of birds to a wintertime feeder, however, it is prudent to continue supplying food to them until spring.

Artificially feeding larger animals such as deer and wild turkeys is where things can get complicated, and well-intended handouts may in fact be illegal. With the discovery of chronic wasting disease in our region last year, the Game Commission has designated most of Blair County and northern Bedford County as a “Disease Management Area.” Any feeding of wild deer within the DMA is illegal.

Putting out small amounts of food to enhance opportunities for wildlife viewing probably is not too detrimental. But attempting to attract too many animals into too small an area, especially in wintertime, is unwise for many reasons. Even moderate feeding can be harmful if what is being provided doesn’t offer the proper nutrition.

Therefore, it pays to learn a little about the nutritional requirements of the wildlife you wish to attract. For instance, supplying mineral supplements to deer is probably more beneficial to them this time of year than most conventional food. And having the proper amount of minerals in their diet promotes better antler growth for bucks and healthier does better able to care for the fawns they will birth this spring.

The best and most beneficial way to attract wildlife to your property year-round is to plant things that will supply the natural food and cover. And many of the wildflowers, shrubs and trees that will provide food and shelter to everything from butterflies to deer can be beautiful and add much aesthetic value to your property as well.

With spring not that far away, now is a good time to do some homework about what plants would be a good fit for the wildlife in your backyard. Several good places to start learning about plantings for wildlife are the websites of the National Wild Turkey Federation (, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources ( and the Pennsylvania Game Commission (