Summer is officially here, and for a lot of us, that means firing up the grill to do some barbecuing! Grilling food and eating outdoors is a great way to enjoy the warm weather, and when you invite family or friends to join you for a cookout, “dinner” almost instantly becomes a party.
summer bbq
However, not all dinner companions are welcome. Folks often expect insects to come around when they’re eating outside, but barbecues can also attract other wildlife, like birds, rodents, and even the occasional large predator. The scent of food cooking and/or the sight of tasty morsels lying out in the open are extremely enticing to animals, especially if they’ve been offered handouts or “cleaned up” after a picnic in the past. So as you’re grilling, don’t be too surprised if you notice a furry or feathery guest crashing the party.

Sharing isn’t always Caring

First things first: if you’re enjoying the great outdoors and a wild animal wanders up to your picnic site, do not feed it.

Yes, most of us are guilty of giving bread to birds (especially water fowl) or tossing a squirrel a potato chip once in a while—after all, feeding critters can be a fun experience for kids, and it makes for great photo ops. Some folks may even think that they’re doing a hungry squirrel or swan a “kindness” by giving it a treat. Unfortunately, sharing your food with wild animals is a bad idea for three main reasons:

  • Your food is probably not healthy for them.Many popular picnic/barbecue foods (chips, fries, hot dogs, white bread, brownies, etc.) contain ingredients that can wreak havoc on an animal’s digestion. Just like people, animals often can’t resist the allure of greasy, salty, sweet, or carb-laden foods, and they’ll eat them to excess if they’re given an opportunity to do so. Not only can they get sick (vomiting, diarrhea, lethargy) soon after eating, but they can develop long-term health issues, as well. For example, a condition called “angel wing,” which is a deformity of the wings that makes flight difficult or impossible, is frequently seen in birds that eat a diet too rich in “people food” and therefore suffer from malnutrition.
  • Feeding wild animals teaches them to not be afraid of humans. Granted, this might sound like a good thing—a world where humans befriend wild animals sounds like something out of a Disney movie! But this is real life, not a cartoon fantasy, and it’s actually bad for animals to lose their healthy fear of people. Animals that get too comfortable around humans are more likely to wander into—and cause problems in— residential areas, convene in large numbers when they spy a person, or “beg” to the point of becoming nuisances. It can also create situations that are dangerous for animals (“I had to shoot that coyote; it was walking toward my son!”) and humans (“A swan tried to fly into the window of our car; I was so startled that I almost swerved off the road!”) alike.
  • Wild animals can be unpredictable. Never forget that wild animals are, in fact, wild. They’re not “tame” like domesticated animals, so you if you try to treat a bear like a dog or a puma like a housecat and hand-feed it, you’re asking for trouble. Animals can become frightened or annoyed very quickly, and when that happens, they often become aggressive. It only takes a few seconds for a cute photo op with a buck or squirrel to turn into a medical emergency! Bites, scratches, kicks, and swats from woodland critters are, at best, unpleasant and painful. At worst, though, can result in infections, serious injury, or even death.

If an animal shows up at your barbecue, it’s okay to admire it from a distance and try to take pictures. However, don’t feed it, and don’t be afraid to shoo it away from your dining area. Be persistent if necessary. You’re not being mean; refraining from feeding the animal is actually in everyone’s best interest.
(Please note that the advice laid out in the previous paragraph only applies to small animals. If a large predator winds up in your backyard, calmly but quickly go inside and call animal control—do not stand your ground against a bobcat!)

Keeping Animals at Bay

Hopefully, though, you won’t find yourself in a situation where you have to deny handouts to animals. With a little planning and organization, you can greatly reduce your odds of attracting wildlife while you’re barbecuing.

    • Don’t leave food out. If you’re going to be eating outdoors, try to avoid doing things buffet style, and don’t leave food unattended while everyone is watching fireworks or playing party games. A table full of food with no humans around is practically irresistible to birds, squirrels, and other animals, so a guest who goes to the snack table for more potato salad might catch a chipmunk rummaging through the pretzel bowl! Instead, put food in covered containers as soon as possible, and consider utilizing a party tent or patio awning to shield edibles from the elements.
    • Pick up your trash. Not only is litter unsightly, but used cups, wrappers, and containers tend to hold on to the scent of whatever edible they previously held—and as we’ve already discussed, the smell of food often attracts animals. During your barbecue, keep a trash bag or container nearby, and don’t wait until it’s overflowing or ripping at the seams to dispose of it. Encourage any guests (especially kids) to throw away their plates and cups when they’re done eating. And no matter how tired you are at the end of the evening, don’t leave the trash receptacle outside overnight!
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Consider your location.

    Be aware of what kinds of animals live your general area and plan accordingly. If there have recently been several coyote or bobcat sightings in a place where you were planning to host an outdoor event, consider moving to a different venue, or at least keeping the festivities indoors. And if you know that red-winged blackbirds like to hang out in your neighborhood during the day, then plan to barbecue in the evening, after they’ve gone to roost. The behavior of wild animals shouldn’t necessarily dictate your life, but it’s much easier to get humans to change their plans than it is to get animals to break their regular routine!

Having an animal try to join you for an outdoor meal can seem like fun, but it can also be annoying, scary, or even dangerous. For this reason, trying to avoid that situation entirely is probably your best option. So take precautions, and react accordingly if a critter still opts to approach you. The safest way to interact with wildlife is from a distance—not up-close-and-personal!