Habitat Trumps Feeding for Winter Wildlife Survival

Doug Leier

By Doug Leier

Thankfully, winter didn’t really start until December. Living in North Dakota we’ve felt winter begin in October some years and drag into what should be spring.

 The later winter begins and the earlier it exits is mostly better for resident wildlife.

 So far, this version of North Dakota winter has been benign if you are a deer, pheasant or other resident wildlife trying to survive one day at a time until spring. But add on another snowstorm or two, and a week-long stretch of below zero temperatures, and people will become more concerned.

That’s when calls to help wildlife will start coming in.

 Feeding wildlife, especially during the winter in North Dakota, was once common practice embraced by most wildlife professionals. Putting food such as grain or hay out in a snow-covered, freezing environment where pheasants and deer could easily get at it, made sense to biologists, hunters and citizens.

 But over the course of the last few decades, that philosophy has gradually evolved.

 The variables and elements to sustain wildlife through a Midwest winter haven’t changed. Food, water, shelter and space – the four components of good habitat – are all required to varying degrees, depending on the species and climatic conditions.

 Historically, for humans wanting what they view as the best for wildlife, food and water were more easily provided, while cover and space were more time consuming and costly, and thus not considered as easy or economical to put into practice. In fact, years ago many people felt that simply providing additional winter food would compensate for a general lack of adequate winter cover and space.

 While food is important, without adequate winter cover, pheasants can basically freeze to death, even with a full crop. The same thing can happen to songbirds. Death from exposure to snow and cold is a much more common occurrence than death from starvation.

 We’ve all seen deer gathered around feeders or alfalfa bales and figured they’d be fine to make it until the spring thaw. But what you don’t see if you’re not watching all the time, is that when deer are drawn out of suitable cover and concentrated around an artificial food source, the natural pecking order keeps needed nutrients from young-of-the-year, which can lead to increased mortality.

  One of my favorite examples plays out each winter when I get calls from concerned people who have a great horned owl lurking near a bird feeder. The predatory bird realizes the feeder is providing a gathering point for smaller birds.

 This is a great example of a well-intentioned practice potentially causing harm to the animals it was designed to benefit, and it helps summarize the current developing theory on feeding: It may be good for an individual or a few animals, but it does not significantly contribute to overall health of a species.

 The bottom line, after years of scrutiny and research, is that natural food sources, with suitable winter cover nearby, is best for sustained wildlife management. The state Game and Fish Department is following that philosophy and has phased out man-made feeders on its wildlife management areas.

 While artificially feeding wildlife may make us feel better and can do some short-term good, the long-term solution requires more and better habitat to sustain or grow a wildlife population.

Leier is an outreach biologist with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department.

Featured Photo: The North Dakota agricultural landscape provides ample food for wildlife making the placement of food for deer, pheasants and other animals unnecessary. Where wildlife species struggle now, with a loss of idled marginal acres, is in finding suitable habitat for over-winter survival. NDG&F Photo.

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