To Feed or Not to Feed

It’s Sunday morning

You’re outside reading the paper and you look up in time to see a hummingbird drinking from the feeder you put out the day before. Your seed feeder is overflowing with scrub jays, mourning dove, finches and sparrows trying to catch a quick meal. And look who’s making his rounds, chattering at your feet for his usual treat: it’s the squirrel that lives in your oak tree. You pull a peanut from your pocket and hand it to him. As the day progresses you notice some deer in the corner of your yard eating the apples and grain you threw out for them. That evening the raccoon you’ve been leaving food out for brings her new batch of young over to play in your dog’s water bowl.

You think back over the day and realize that you must have spent two to three hours just watching this activity. Ah, harmony with nature. Many people do one or more of the above. We like to feed the animals because it gives us a chance to see them up close and to feel we are helping by providing this extra bit of food. But are we really helping these animals – or are we causing them to become nuisances?

The Urban Woods

Wild animals are a permanent part of the urban environment. Unfortunately, their presence in our neighborhoods is very much a mixed blessing. While often beautiful and fascinating to watch, their natural behaviors – digging for insects, burrowing under logs or rock piles for shelter, and seeking out food – can lead to human-animal conflicts that can become serious. When humans intervene in the animals’ lives the volume of these conflicts increases drastically.

The number of animals in any given area is usually controlled by three things, available food, water and shelter. It is referred to as the carrying capacity of the land. This helps the animals spread out so needed resources are not depleted right away. If a sickness such as distemper – a common disease of raccoons, foxes and other mammals – should break out, the number of animals affected is limited.

But when people leave food out, more animals are encouraged to move into that area, putting pressure on the other resources such as water and shelter. This overcrowding can lead to fighting between animals, frequently resulting in wounds that can become life-threatening.

Interactions between humans and animals escalate as well. A person who routinely feeds a raccoon, for instance, teaches him that he can get an easy meal. The animal then begins to visit other homes looking for more handouts. At best, the “begging” raccoon is often considered a nuisance. For many people, however, an adult raccoon standing on his hind legs and banging on the sliding glass door is intimidating – especially since many people think that wild animals are supposed to be wary of humans.

While a wild animal usually will leave if harassed or food is not forthcoming, sometimes the resident dog or cat gets involved, resulting in injury or worse for both animals. Often when people get fed up with the problems the wild animal is causing, they call a trapper to eliminate the problem wildlife, usually resulting in its death.

You can help avert this tragedy

First, check your home and property for things that can attract animals, such as fruit trees, vegetable gardens, a broken air vent that allow access under the home, and chickens or rabbits that live out of doors. Modifying or eliminating these attractants can help to deter wild animals from coming around – or at least from moving in. PHS/SPCA believes, for example, that rabbits should live inside the home, in part because they become prey for wild animals when housed outdoors.

Second, look closely not only at your intended, limited interaction with wildlife, but also at its unintended, more extensive results. You may say, for instance, “I only feed birds, “ but you must realize that unless you clean up after the birds each day, you will have mice eating the seed that has fallen on the ground, and most likely rats visiting the feeders at night. And the scent that these animals leave can in turn attract the larger mammals, like raccoons. Leaving food out for the wild mammals that come through our yards only encourages them to become bold and less wary of humans.

One must also accept the responsibility that when you feed wildlife you are putting them at a greater risk of predation and disease. Birds landing on phone lines waiting to take their turn at a feeder does not go unnoticed by hawks searching out their next meal. Anywhere a feeding station is set up it attracts more animals than would normally feed together. When a sick animal comes in to feed it can spread its disease to many more animals than it would under normal conditions.

So please think twice before you leave food out for wild animals. Don’t turn them into beggars and nuisances. In the end, the animals you think you are helping may have to pay for their newly acquired behavior with their lives.