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Feeding wildlife can be harmful

Feeding wildlife may seem like an enjoyable way to connect with nature, but it can often lead to serious problems
This raccoon gets into a bird feeder while foraging for food.

Feeding wildlife may seem like an enjoyable way to connect with nature, but it can often lead to serious problems for species like squirrels, raccoons, deer and bears.

“Wild animals who get used to a handout will often take the easy route despite ample natural foods being available – even in urban areas,” says Dr. Sara Dubois, chief scientific officer for the BC SPCA. “Although it might seem harmless and cute to feed a squirrel on a park bench or ducks at the local pond, these activities can lead to increased habituation.”

Dubois says fed wildlife can become dependent on unreliable food sources and suffer nutritionally when given inappropriate foods. “Habituated wild animals are also more susceptible to predators and vehicle collisions, as they lose their fear of people and the associated flight response.”

In other cases, she says, wild animals who have been fed regularly can develop food-seeking aggression and can become hostile towards people and pets. “It is usually then that trappers or conservation officers are called in to deal with the situation.

Dubois notes that human carelessness can also lead to urban wildlife becoming habituated. “Putting garbage out the evening before pickup, using non-wildlife-proof bins, keeping pet food outside, leaving fallen fruit on the ground and littering can lead to situations where wild animals – and their offspring – are killed unnecessarily,” she says.

”One area where the experts disagree is on the feeding of migratory birds. Whether you agree or disagree with feeding birds, it is the most widespread and popular form of human-wildlife interaction worldwide.”

Proponents believe it improves the survival of wintering birds, while other experts believe it causes birds to become nutritionally imbalanced. Strong evidence has also been documented to show bird feeders are responsible for spreading diseases such as salmonella among bird populations. Although the BC SPCA prefers you to attract birds naturally with native plants, if you are going to feed migratory birds, please:

  • Ensure feeders are not accessible to other species by using baffles and “proof” feeders.

  • Keep cats indoors and ask your neighbours to do so as well.

  • Clean feeders regularly with a 10 per cent bleach dilution to prevent disease outbreaks.

  • Feed seasonally, when natural resources are limited. Consult your local bird feed or nature store to determine  the right feed for the season and the species.

  • Place feeders in protected areas, out of the rain, snow and wind.

  • Place feeders as far away from windows as possible. If it must be near a window, place it less than one metre away and use UV window decals to prevent injury.

  • Don’t ground feed, and clean spilled seeds frequently to avoid attracting rodents.

  • Do not use herbicides, fungicides or pesticides in your yard.

  • If maintaining a hummingbird feeder in the winter, ensure that it does not freeze, as it is likely the only food source for the birds who are using it.

  • Never feed ducks, geese, swans, gulls, herons or eagles.