Bird-feeding needs deliberate choices on man’s part
Feeding birds and other wildlife, the latter sometimes by default if not design, is a popular pastime for many outdoors-oriented folks, but it carries a few cautions and considerations.
I was reminded of this one recent morning when the thermometer here at Froggy Bottom took a deep dive, to 10 below zero, the coldest morning in some years. We have had several other sub-zero mornings and February promises more.
The songbirds in particular that morning were putting on a near-frantic display of feeding, mobbing my seven feeding stations. Goldfinches, house finches, mourning doves, bluejays, cardinals, English (house) sparrows, dark-eyed juncos, white-breasted nuthatches and more. One morning I even watched a stray hen pheasant, a rarity here any more, this one likely a pen-bird, a runner from the dog-training site a mile up the road.
Super-cold weather seriously can stress birds, which do not keep great fat stores to carry them through. It is true that birds have evolved famously well to survive the cold in the wild, and they do not “need” us to feed them. Unless, that is, we lure or train them in a sense to come to our feeders for relatively easy pickings. We feed birds for ourselves; we like having them around, often hoping to see the odd rarity show up among the regulars.
So, ethically, once you start feeding birds in the winter, you have a responsibility to keep it up until well into spring…when insects and grubs, fresh buds and such become available.
Another caution: Do not feed bread or stale pastries. Yes, they may nibble it up, but it just fills their bellies while providing next to no nutrition. Lots of well-meaning but underinformed people often are seen tossing bits of bread or leftover donuts, especially to ducks and geese. In a sense so doing is killing them with misguided kindness. A full belly is not necessarily a well-fed belly.
On a related front, I had developed the habit of putting out corn next to the mineral licks at two trail cam sites, just to see what shows up. Of course the deer found it quickly, along with raccoons, fox squirrels, a woodchuck or two, and several of the larger ground-feeding songbirds – cardinals, jays, and doves. Occasionally several or more wild turkeys have stopped to feed as well. The little “feedlots” also occasionally attracted a red fox or coyote – in hopes, no doubt, of feeding on the “feeders.”
Feeding corn in agricultural regions where it is a dominant crop is not particularly a problem, as the foregoing species will forage for it in cropland anyway. Their wild digestive tracts have adapted to this man-introduced food source. But deer in more remote woodland regions and other habitats where corn is not widely present – think upper Michigan, northern Pennsylvania, upstate New York – may be poorly adapted to digesting corn. In such cases corn can wreak havoc on the guts of unwary, unadapted animals.
Also, with the verification of the COVID-19 virus in deer, feeding corn can be a problem. It concentrates deer where an infected animal will be in close contact with others, possibly spreading the disease. I have had as many as six deer at once, nosing around in my small cornpiles (maybe 5 or 10 pounds at a time, tops). And they and other critters gnaw right down to bare soil to snatch up every last kernel. As a precaution, then, I am ceasing the corn-feeding, much as I enjoyed seeking the wild menagerie that showed up for easy feasting.
Full disclosure: I do not use my trail cam mineral-lick and cornfeed sites for hunting. I know that it is legal to hunt deer over bait, in Ohio, but it is not for me. I understand that it may be a way that individuals with physical limitations, for example, can continue to hunt and that’s ok. But it is often overdone, to the point of calling up the ethical question of fair chase.
I frankly am a bit disappointed that hunting over bait – from a treestand, elevated stand, or ground blind – has become the overwhelmingly dominant form of “deer hunting” in neighboring Michigan. Bags and bushels of apples, sugar beets, carrots and more are sold in gas stations. I grew up to stories from my own father, who hunted deer in the Upper Peninsula in the heyday 1930s – on foot, like the vast majority of other hunters. Baiting was rare then; it never entered my Dad’s tales or plans as a hunting tactic. Nowadays if you don’t bait you don’t see deer, or so it seems the story goes.
In the end feeding wildlife, whether feathered or furred, should involve some deliberation and judicious, ethical choices regardless of whether your intent is just watching or hunting. Remember feeding them is about us, not them. They do not need us.