Don’t let drought or other severe weather tempt you to feed wildlife

Feeding often makes things worse, especially when done half-heartedly-
Expect predators to show up

Perhaps millions of Americans feed the birds, squirrels, feral cats, much larger animals too, such as deer. All animals are interested in food and as a population they obviously know how to find it, or they would not exist. They probably do not make much of a distinction between a handout from humans as being much different than a natural source. They don’t judge the food in such an abstract way — natural versus artificial. They judge food  from its taste, texture, smell, difficulty or ease of acquiring it and holding it, and its reliability.

Reliability is one of the biggest problems when people begin to feed wildlife. It only takes one handout of any significant amount to create a memory. Memories of where and how to get food are strong, even in small brains. Of course, if a handout happens only once and many other people, or the same person, is encountered more times with no reward, then the memory fades.  The problem comes when people sporadically feed the animal. This is likely to make them aggressive, or at least to linger nearby expecting a possible handout. Larger animals might decide to try to take the food  when it is not forthcoming but can be seen or smelled on the premises. This is obviously true for carnivores or omnivores such as raccoons and bears.

If feeding is reliable, a seemingly peaceful situation might develop, at least for a while.  The animals show up at the feeding station. There will probably be jockeying for position, but they can count on some food, perhaps enough that they begin to abandon natural sources and lose the skills to acquire them. What happens then when the person, let’s say the bird feeder, goes on vacation? The birds might starve or at least weaken. In a neighborhood where many people feed, the absence of one feeder is not so important. The birds can fly to a nearby bird feeder. If you are the only source of human food, and what you give is significant, unreliable feeding is a big problem for the animals. However, if you are reliable, in many, perhaps most situations, something will show up that does not want your food, but instead wants to eat what you are feeding. So, bird feeders attract cats, owls, hawks, fox, coyotes. Feeding feral cats will often attract coyotes as well. Feeding deer will attract even larger carnivores if you live in a rural or semi-rural area. Perhaps cougar will show up. Certainly coyotes and coywolves are interested in at least monitoring the deer for infirmity or for fawns.

A recent story in the San Francisco Chronicle is being circulated as an example. It describes a seemingly successful effort, at first, in helping the scrawny deer suffering from the great drought now engulfing most of California. Feeding wildlife can have negative repercussions. By Tom Stienstra.



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  1. Kathleen Avatar

    I was entirely dismayed when I first saw this deer-feeding video posted at an animal rights site. Then I was even *more* dismayed when comments lauded the deer feeder for his “kindness.” It was a real wake-up call as to how poorly many (most?) people understand wild survival…and that good intentions like feeding are actually harmful. Oh, and don’t miss clicking on the image that leads to a story on how one bear-feeding episode ended…argh.

    The video is linked in this post:

  2. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    Last November, at the IWC, there was a presentation by the MN DNR and WS. They were adamant about not feeding deer. More or less said, if you are sketchy about wolves around your home you’re not doing yourself, the wolves or the deer a favor.

    Recently, the MNDNR rescinded the deer feeding ban in a couple of deer zones up here because the Winter has been pretty tough so far. Winter Severity Index well over 100.
    WSI is number of days with 15+ inches of snow on the ground plus days where temperature gets below zero. Some areas with drifted snow are waist deep.

    We’ve just completed a stint with 30 days in a row with sub zero temps. Expecting 8-12 inches of snow through tomorrow, then back to the deep freeze next week with temps projected at more than -20° by mid week. Gonna be tough on all wildlife.

  3. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    I was under the impression that feed birds helps insure their continued survival, with all of the threats from humans they face! I’m very reliable about it and don’t leave them without, and they tend to go to feeders less when there is more natural food available, at least that’s been my observation. They like garden-gone-to-seed sees in the fall too. I have seen raptors take a bird on occasion – but in all the decades I’ve been feeding/watching birds, I could count those times on one hand. It is also part of nature, and I have come to see it as helping raptors survive also. Also, they only take one bird and only what they need to survive, not the entire thing everywhere in sight as humans do.

    It does draw raccoons and deer, squirrels and chipmunks, voles, etc. I have put out corn for the deer during harsh winters, and they do seem to have a ‘memory’ from year to year, as new generations show up at just the right time. Just today I saw deer tracks and a place where they have bedded down out of the wind near out house, behind the holly. A rather humbling experience. That holly draws all kinds of wildlife!

    If I lived out West where there are more predators, I’d be more careful, probably would not be able to feed birds.

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Oops, make that ‘garden-gone-to-seed’ seeds. I only feed the deer during the coldest and harshest of winters, and then in the spring they’re on their own, and they no longer visit either. I’ve got foxes too. 🙂

      1. Mark L Avatar
        Mark L

        I like the ‘garden-gone-to-seed’ seeds too. My mom ‘insists’ on feeding birds every winter at her (suburban) house, so I mix her hot suet to keep the squirrels and raccoons down to a bare minimum. I’m a big believer in chemical warfare to deter mammals (and I raise hot peppers). Works like a charm.

        1. WM Avatar

          Years ago, when migratory Canadian goose populations were at their low point my folks used to drop the blade on the tractor and clear a space in a foot or two of snow, for geese to stop over. Ponds and lakes frozen, but an area free of snow, and liberally scattered with cracked corn was a welcome reprieve. Located in the middle of a horse pasture, it provided good line of sight for approaching predators. A good idea at the time, some might say.

          These are some of the same geese whose offspring now mostly stay year round on golf courses, parks and people’s yards. Populations clearly recovered, but more habituated AND food conditioned geese than humans want. Now local governments have to spend money controlling their numbers and where they hang out. If my parents only knew….

          1. Ida Lupines Avatar
            Ida Lupines

            It sounds wonderful. But, other changes have occurred since then also. We actually have more Canada geese than mute swans, at least I think so. In my observations, the gosling/cygnet mortality rate is pretty high, due to snapping turtles, dogs, coyotes, foxes, etc. Although I have seen literally dozens of goslings traveling behind their parents at times.

            1. WM Avatar


              Maybe you will take note of what the state of NY thinks about mute swans – not very supportive of your view:


            2. Ida Lupines Avatar
              Ida Lupines

              I also saw nearly 200 sanderlings having their dinner in the surf over the weekend. What a sight!

  4. Garry Rogers Avatar

    I like your post. This is complicated. My local feed store and every pet store I’ve been in sells specialized foods for several wildlife species in addition to birds. Big business. A great deal of sporadic feeding is going on. Where can I find details: specific recommendations, references, organizations, etc.

    Thank you.

  5. rork Avatar

    MI DNR has permitted some deer feeding in UP under very strict guidelines this year, Jan 15. You need to get a permit too. It’s an admission that there might be heavy winter kill this season. Perhaps anti-ecologic and mostly economic, but I’m not wailing against it, perhaps just out of sympathy for deer and landowners (dissonance – I hate it). A crash might be the forest’s best friend though. DNR has been better about advising people not to tempt deer in the last decade, giving many good reasons in newsletters, press releases, web.
    Our town with the most wolf problems, Ironwood, has still not adopted proposals to ban deer feeding I believe. I’d want very low deer densities near any upper peninsula town, and would advocate more lethal action, as well food limiting measures. Some people being emotionally involved aren’t helping – they love seeing deer out the window, and feeding feral cats, alien song birds, and mute swans.
    Disclaim: I keep suet blocks outside in winter. Squirrel and deer proof. No alien birds at my place so far, but I think they’ll show up some year.

  6. Ida Lupines Avatar
    Ida Lupines

    Another thing I have noticed is the deer don’t always come when I leave food out for them (and I don’t leave a lot, I know it isn’t healthy for them in large amounts). If they don’t eat it, another animal will (I think even the foxes will eat corn?). They still browse (as my shrubs can attest to) but they also keep a lot of overgrowth down in the spring and summer. They are welcome to it. I wish they’d eat some of the invasives! 🙂


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan