When it comes to feeding winter wildlife, don’t do it?


As we enter the latter part of January, most of south-central Pennsylvania has enjoyed a relatively mild winter so far with more rain than snow and few brutally cold days. I’m well aware, of course, those conditions could, and probably will, change to more harsh winter weather over the coming weeks.

Therefore, it seems prudent to remind folks that feeding wildlife during the winter might seem like a worthwhile and compassionate gesture, the conventional wisdom on this practice is simply “don’t do it.”

In most cases, putting out food for wild animals usually does more harm than good for any number of reasons. Artificially feeding larger wild animals such as deer, elk and wild turkeys is especially discouraged. 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.

Many well-intended handouts for winter wildlife can also be illegal. Feeding wild elk is prohibited anywhere these animals are found in Pennsylvania. With the discovery of white-tailed deer infected with chronic wasting disease in Pennsylvania back in 2012, the Game Commission has designated specific Disease Management Areas to help control the spread of the disease.

Any feeding of wild deer within a DMA is prohibited, and anyone caught doing so will be subject to fines and other legal action.

Unfortunately, most of our region is included within DMA 2 or DMA 3. DMA 2 comprises all of Bedford County, most of Blair and Huntingdon counties, and parts of, Somerset, Fulton and Cambria counties.DMA 3 comprises parts of Armstrong, Cambria, Clarion, Clearfield, Indiana and Jefferson counties. The specific boundaries for both DMAs can be found on the Pennsylvania Game Commission website at pgc.pa.gov.

One notable exception to the prohibition of feeding winter wildlife, of course, is a backyard birdfeeder, which can provide hours of enjoyment watching the intrepid little snowbirds that are adapted to making a living during our Pennsylvania winters. When it comes to the winter feeding of songbirds, however, moderation is the best strategy.

Putting out large quantities of food can not only become expensive in the long run but also can create the potential for problems for the birds themselves, especially if they have become dependent on your artificial food source. It is much better to put out modest amounts of food each day to attract birds regularly to your site and maintain that supplement throughout the winter.

Some of the species in our region that readily visit feeders in the wintertime are black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, goldfinch, cardinal, blue jay, mourning dove, house finch, white-throated sparrow, song sparrow, American tree sparrow, downy woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, red-bellied woodpecker and dark-eyed junco.

The types of food you supply can also determine what birds will visit your feeders. Most birds are selective about what they eat and seem to instinctively know what is not good for them. Avoid, however, salty foods like potato chips or corn chips, uncooked rice and dried peas or beans.

Black oil sunflower seeds are preferred by most species of winter birds and should be a staple in your feeding program. There are also all sorts of seed mixtures on the market that will appeal to a variety of birds. Avoid many of the inexpensive seed mixes that tend to contain a high percentage of milo. Millet is a much better component for seed mixtures as most birds find it more desirable.

Woodpeckers, along with chickadees, titmice and nuthatches, are attracted to suet blocks. Blue jays, woodpeckers and nuthatches are fond of shelled, unsalted peanuts, while goldfinches are fond of thistle seeds.

Peanut butter can be special treat for chickadees and nuthatches. Simply dab it on the edges of a feeder tray or on nearby tree trunks or bushes and watch those acrobatic little birds peck away at the sticky delicacy.

Proper feeder placement is important, both for viewing enjoyment and the welfare of the birds themselves. While you’ll probably want to locate your winter feeders in places where you can observe them from the comfort of your house, be careful not to place them closer than about 20 feet to large windows to prevent birds from being injured or killed by accidentally flying into the glass. Birds will tend to find feeders more attractive if there is some type of cover nearby.

Trees and shrubs give the birds shelter from cats, hawks and other potential predators as well as providing them with a resting place between trips to the feeding station. Species such as cardinals, juncos and song sparrows often prefer feeding on the ground and will readily clean up spilled seeds underneath a feeder. These birds can be accommodated by putting out a feeder tray or two on the ground for them.

While the best advice for the wintertime feeding of most wildlife remains “don’t do it,” backyard birdfeeders can be a win-win situation by providing enjoyment to us humans by watching the antics and feeding behavior of our snowbirds and in a small way help those remarkable creatures with their winter survival needs.