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It’s one of the great ironies of life that, after four months of deer hunting in several states this season, I would step outside to feed the chickadees and find deer tracks less than four feet from my porch steps. After crossing the road by the mailbox and spending some time browsing on the brittle raspberry canes in the garden, two whitetails walked through the dooryard, around the woodpile and past the porch to get at the pile of cracked corn and sunflower seeds I’d put out for the squirrels and turkeys.
Always a fan of deer and their winter habits, I followed the clean, sharp tracks in the inch of snow that fell the day before and traced their meanderings around the house. Standing in their tracks I could touch my porch railing, the wood pile and the pilings for next year’s deck project. For most of their visit the deer were within 10 yards of my bed, and, thinking as a hunter, I could have filled my tag from any window in the house.
Of course, the hunting season is over and a truce has been declared. I will gladly feed and observe the wild things that wander through my yard all winter, even the piggish turkeys that can gobble down a gallon of seeds in minutes. It’s a pleasure to see them show up each day and entertain me with their presence, and I don’t mind the expense or bother of keeping the feeding stations open during this hungry time of year.
Some say that artificial feeding is not a good thing, and most state wildlife agencies recommend against the practice for one reason or another. People who feed bears (or allow bears to forage on bird seed) may see the benefits of not feeding, and those who start feeding deer in early fall may wonder about the financial aspects when 20 or more whitetails show up every day. It’s said that a deer must eat 10 pounds of browse per day, though I have to believe that their winter diet may be half that amount. Even at 5 pounds per deer per day, that’s 700 pounds of corn or pellets a week for a herd of 20 animals. That’s a lot of food and a lot of money; good points to contemplate before embarking on a winter-long feeding regimen. If you can afford it and don’t stop feeding till spring it may help a few of those deer survive. However, crowding that many deer into close proximity of a feeding station will attract dogs, coyotes and other predators. As any backyard bird feeder knows, hawks and owls are birds, too, but seeds are not on their menu! Whenever we alter a wild animal’s normal routine we put them at risk. Be sure to consider the dangers of back yard feeding, especially for the bigger animals, before investing your time, money and energy. Be prepared to continue feeding all winter or don’t even start, because deer that are used to feeding on your lawn will take up residence nearby and then be trapped by deep winter snow. With no food and nowhere to hide, you can imagine the outcome: Not good even if there are no predators in the mix.
I enjoy feeding the small birds, squirrels and turkeys because they are able to fly or run quickly to cover or a cozy den if danger threatens. In fact, I keep my feeders in the open and elevated, well away from wood piles, buildings, covered equipment and other obstacles that provide great hiding places for house cats, weasels and other predators attracted to the commotion created by birds at the feeders. These meat-eaters are clever, patient and persistent, so if you see one lurking around your feeders, move the feeder or the objects the predator can hide behind. It’s a sad thing to see a pile of feathers in the snow under a feeder, mute evidence that a predator’s patience and cunning have been rewarded.
Though some will argue that back yard bird feeding upsets nature’s normal process by concentrating hungry birds and animals in a small area, I have not seen this to be a major issue. It is true that deer, ducks, geese, turkeys and songbirds will come to our feeders and clean up every seed and kernel of corn in passing, but then they will head for the woods or water to continue feeding on natural foods. We should, as they do, consider our feeders a visiting place, not a stopping place. The chickadees will head for the woods after filling up on sunflower seeds, the turkeys will wander all day in search of bugs, buds and other seeds, and the deer will slink away to browse on twigs and buds till they find a safe place where they can bed down, chew their cuds and pass the time away. Old, injured or sick critters may stick close to an artificial food source but to me this actually prolongs their lives because without a ready supply of food they would surely be doomed. These creatures are often my only company, so the cost of feeding them is a minor matter compared to what they do for me by simply existing. I notice when they are not around and worry about them when they are gone overlong. I know I’m not the only one; my neighbors begin to wonder when the robins, bluebirds, phoebes or swallows are late showing up in spring.
If you plan to feed wildlife this winter, commit to doing so for the duration. Keep the feeders cleared of snow and filled with seeds each day. Do your part and the birds will do theirs. What they bring to the window on a cold winter day is worth far more than what you provide for them.
Winter wildlife feeding is expensive and requires some work, but look on the bright side: What if elephants wintered in Maine!
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