Though they aren’t technically pets, some of the more generous of us spend money buying food for birds and squirrels. It’s hard not to feel sorry for these creatures outside our windows and in the park, braving subzero temperatures. Our inclination is to help them, and other wildlife, and put out food, especially in winter when natural food sources are scarce. Nevertheless, are we helping, or harming them by causing wildlife to become dependent?
“We should always keep wildlife wild. That means never approaching any wild animal or trying to make pets of them,” says naturalist David Mizejewski of the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, VA. “When it comes to feeding wildlife, a bird feeder is OK. Research shows that birds only use feeders to supplement the natural foods they find in the landscape. This means they don’t become dependent on feeders and you don’t have to worry about them starving if you stop feeding. There is some research that shows in extreme weather conditions, feeders can help birds survive.”
While bird feeders don’t compromise birds’ “wildness,” Mizejewski advises the same isn’t true of mammals.
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“For mammals, supplemental feeding is discouraged because they often associate humans with food, and become habituated. That can lead to close encounters with people, which typically end badly for the wild animals. Never put out human food scraps or pet food for raccoons, opossums, foxes, skunks, deer or bears for this reason. Squirrels are a bit of an exception, mostly because they will take advantage of a bird feeder whether you like it or not. As long as you don’t try to hand-feed squirrels, or put excessive amounts of seed out, it’s usually OK. If other mammals, like bears ,are using your bird feeders, you need to take them down.”
Look after your yard, look after birds
There is mounting evidence that native bird populations are dwindling due to malnourishment and weakness, particularly on their migrations.
“Birds face a whole host of challenges to their survival,” says Mizejewski. “Habitat loss is chief among them and climate change is exacerbating that problem. Restoring habitat in urban and suburban areas helps both resident and migratory birds survive. Our Garden for Wildlife program teaches people how to do just that. The best way to help birds and all wildlife is to focus on protecting their natural habitat, and enhancing that habitat right in your own yard.”
For more info, visit www.nwf.org/garden