Feed the Animals
Posted on April 14th, 2012
“Don’t feed the animals” is common wisdom. This advice is so often repeated that we could think it must be good advice. You can get the advice from a park ranger, from a sign at a pond, from your next door neighbor.
The advice is so widely held that surely it must be true. But a little thought leads us to a different conclusion.
Common Arguments Against Feeding
We are encouraged to “feed the birds”. However, birds are animals, so the advice must mean, “don’t feed the mammals”.
What’s wrong with mammals? What could possibly be the risk in feeding them? Here are some “risks” that I’ve heard of.
You will create a dependence. Yes, we will. During a hard winter, a mammal you feed might survive, rather than die. It might be healthier in the spring, and have more and bigger babies. This is all good, I think.
What will happen to the animals when you die? They will need to get all of their food from other sources. This will likely mean leaner times for most. Some may need to find new territories. That process, in fact, is active today. I cannot look out my window today and see all the animals I’ve ever fed. Most have moved away to neighboring territories. In some cases, neighboring critters may have moved even farther away. It is nothing novel for an animal to find alternate food sources or move.
There is no doubt that my death will be a great inconvenience for many of them. But before I die, many generations of animals will have come to my feeders, and benefited.
Animals you feed will forget how to find their own food. This is silly. Foxes, coyotes, raccoons, opossums and other predators hunt all night long. Squirrels search for nuts and seeds all day long, before and after visiting our platform feeders. Deer browse their way to and from their bowl. Even your dog, domesticated for the last 30,000 years, knows how to put terror into the heart of a chipmunk or squirrel. And your cat, domesticated for the past 4,000 years and handsomely fed, is a member of a species that kills 100 million songbirds each year in the U.S. Forget forgetting. Mammals, whether domestic or wild, can take care of themselves.
Animals will become imprinted, and lose their fear of humans. Mammals don’t imprint. Birds imprint, and we feed them without teaching them to follow us around. Mammals could lose their fear of you if you insisted on being present while they fed, but a platform of seed suspended near a tree won’t make your squirrels easier to catch. A tub of corn and molasses in your back yard won’t make your deer easier to harness at Christmas time.
Feeding will attract mice and rats. Maybe. If no foxes or other predators find their way to your food, mice or rats might find a meal. But any predators attracted to your food will find mice and rats handy snacks on their way to and from it. With a balanced community of wildlife, you’ll likely have an unnoticeable load of field mice, and no rats at all.
Feeding isn’t natural. Correct, but neither are highways, suburban yards, or any of the other ways we have changed the world. Feeding can make up, a little bit, for our habitat destruction. We should do one more unnatural thing: feeding those whose food has been taken from them.
Providing an artificial food source causes adults to produce large families which the natural food supply can’t support. i We don’t seem to worry about birds producing more babies than “the natural food supply can support”. We may not worry about birds because we know they will disperse to areas that can support them, and because we know that their mortality rates are so high. This applies to mammals, too. Feeding certainly can increase family size, but most mammals don’t like to be crowded, and will move on to new territories when this occurs. People who have fed mammals for many years will tell you that they have about the same number at their feeders this year as they did last year or the year before. Do these animals move to territories lacking a food supply? No, they will usually move to a territory where there are “vacancies” created by unnatural mishaps, such as encounters with cats and cars.
Wild animals have specialized diets and can die from the wrong foodsii. I am not recommending providing human food to wild animals, and am not recommending feeding baby animals at all. If you find an orphaned baby, call a wildlife rehabilitator for guidance on what to do. For other mammals, provide seed, grain, dry dog food or dry cat food.
Why We Should Feed
If there are no solid arguments against feeding, are there any good arguments for feeding? Yes, indeed!
Feeding will draw animals. From your window, you will see more squirrels, more foxes, more wildlife. At night, through an open window, you may hear baby raccoons purring. Life is good. Being surrounded by wildlife is good.
Feeding increases the number of animals, not just the number of critters around your house. Animals that are well-fed are healthier. They have more babies. Their babies are healthier. And because our feeding will be attracting wild animals, not sheep or schools of fish, these animals will disperse on their own as their local population builds. You will be supplying animals to your nearby fields and woodlands, where they will fill vacuums created by windows, traffic, and hunting.
Feeding will make an animal happy. Unlike people, animals are hungry nearly all the time. There is every reason to think that they feel as we do when we are hungry. We eat and feel good. They will feel good when they eat. Feed them, and take credit for making them feel good.
Thoughts on Feeding
The issue should not be feed/don’t feed. It should be how to feed, what to feed, when to feed. Here are some thoughts.
Provide a variety of feeders. Every animal has its preferences in feeders. Some birds prefer tube feeders, for instance, while others prefer platform feeders, and still others prefer to eat from the ground. Squirrels prefer suspended platform feeders over all other kinds of feeding stations. Foxes, coyotes, racoons, and opossums all do fine sharing a tub of dry dog food.
Keep feeders filled! The suburbs are filled with empty bird feeders, which benefit no one. Some claim that bird feeders need be filled only in the winter, but I’ve noticed that birds seem to eat year-round. If you want birds year-round, feed them year-round.
Place feeders so that they can be seen from inside your house. In such locations, you’ll see the most action, and get the biggest reward from your feeding dollar. If you can’t see your feeders, you’ll be less likely to notice when they are empty and refill them.
Don’t feed your wild animals to your cat or dog. In the U.S., cats kill hundreds of millions of birds and small mammals a year. A recent study estimated that in rural Wisconsin alone, cats kill 39 million birds each yeariii. When an animal is bitten by a cat, even if it is not killed on the spot, it will likely die from infection – over 100 different bacteria are found in cat saliva.
Don’t feed your wild animals to each other. Put platform feeders close to trees, so squirrels can find safety from predators. Put all feeders near shrubbery of some sort, so that diners can escape from other diners.
Make water available to all, 24×7. An empty bird bath is not as useful as people seem to imagine. All of your visitors need both food and water. The ideal is a small pool in the ground, with a stone beach that will allow everyone to climb in and out. Keep this filled with a hose. If it attracts mosquitoes that your birds and frogs can’t control, control them with a mosquito Dunk.
If this all seems reasonable, why does everyone seem to argue against feeding mammals? My guess is that the wisdom involved is the same that once convinced us that the world was flat or that tomatoes were poisonous or that the emperor has no clothes. Feed the animals.
i Anne Muraski. Eight Good Reasons… why you shouldn’t feed wildlife.
ii Anne Muraski. Eight Good Reasons… why you shouldn’t feed wildlife.