Most people have, at one point or another, given food to a wild animal. We’re not talking about feeding exotic beasts like monkeys and tigers, of course. But nearly all of us have thrown bits of bread to a duck, or added some seed to a backyard birdfeeder, or tossed a potato chip toward a curious squirrel. For those of us who live in suburban or urban areas, these kinds of animal encounters are generally as “wild” as it gets!
Feeding the animals in your neighborhood can be fun, rewarding, and even educational, but it must be done properly in order to ensure that both the humans and animals benefit from this arrangement. So before you run out of the house with a loaf of bread at the ready, here are some guidelines to keep in mind:
■Feed the right foods.
Wild animals generally aren’t very discerning about the foods they eat. That’s understandable; when you’re not always sure where your next meal will come from, being a picky eater really isn’t an option! But just as you shouldn’t let your dog or cat gobble up every morsel they can get their jaws around, you also shouldn’t offer unhealthy or potentially toxic treats to wildlife. So put away your chocolate bars, white bread, potato chips, French fries, cookies, and candy! Peanuts, sunflower seeds, shredded lettuce, and rolled oats are much better choices for our furry and feathered friends. Commercially prepared blends of bird and wild animal food are another great option; you can find them at most pet supply and home improvement stores, and they take the guesswork out of “cooking” for your backyard guests.
■Keep your distance.
Although the prospect of a bird, squirrel, or deer nibbling snacks from your hand may seem charming, it’s just not smart to get that close to a wild animal. Even if the critter seems calm and friendly, it might react aggressively with its claws or teeth if something startles or annoys it, and your “fun encounter” may then end in a trip to the hospital. So stick to leaving food on a dish/feeder or scattering morsels throughout your yard for animals to find. If you’re strategic about the food’s placement, you’ll be able to watch the animals eat through a window or glass door in your home. Investing in a nice pair of binoculars can be handy, too; they’ll let you get a very good look at your wild guest while you stay a safe distance away.
■Know how to respond to “lost” baby animals.
If the animals you feed get very comfortable on your property, you may one day discover a bird’s nest or rabbit’s den somewhere in your yard. How exciting! However, please don’t make the mistake of assuming that a baby animal with no parents in sight has been “abandoned” or “orphaned” and therefore requires rescuing. Mother rabbits, for example, often leave their kits unattended for hours at a time but come back to nurse them as needed; just because you never see her doesn’t mean that her babies aren’t being taken care of. Similarly, a baby bird that’s somehow fallen out of the nest might just need to be gently placed back into the nest with its siblings instead of being taken indoors. Yes, there are times when a human “fostering” a baby animal really is the baby’s only chance for survival. But before you try to undertake a rescue, do some research or contact an expert to determine if your help is really needed.
■Be aware of local rules concerning wildlife.
Some municipalities actually prohibit feeding certain species of animals, and other places strongly discourage the practice. Granted, the targets of these policies are usually large critters, like deer, coyotes, and bobcats; if you like leaving out millet or corn for the sparrows and chipmunks, then you’re probably fine. Restrictions on feeding wildlife are generally put in place to protect humans and livestock, as encouraging large and/or predatory animals to wander into residential or agricultural areas by offering them food can have unintended consequences. A full-grown buck who wanders into your backyard may be breathtaking to behold, but “rolling out the red carpet” for him might not be in you and your family’s best interests.
■Know where to draw the line.
When you put food out for wild animals, it’s hard (or nearly impossible) to control who will drop in for quick bite and/or how often certain animals will visit. You may eventually realize that the blend of seeds and dried fruit that you like to put out for the songbirds every day also attracts squirrels and raccoons. You might even start to recognize “regulars” who make stopping by your home a normal part of their daily routine. These scenarios are totally normal, and some people actually think that they’re the best parts of feeding wildlife! However, if you ever become concerned that you’re attracting the “wrong” kinds of animals to your home, or that one of your guests has started to get aggressive or territorial towards other visitors, then it might be time to either switch up the menu or take a break from feeding the animals entirely. Doing this is NOT cruel, nor is it dooming any helpless critters to starvation. Remember: the animals managed to feed themselves before you started offering them snacks, and they’ll continue to fend for themselves without your help!
When done correctly, feeding wildlife can be a safe, enriching hobby for you, your family, and the animals that live in your neighborhood. If you’re going to do it, though, please make good decisions! Don’t feed the critters junk food, do give them their space, and try not to interfere with their lives unless it’s absolutely necessary. You don’t want to scare them away or stress them out, nor do you want for them to get the impression that it’s okay to move into your house, attic, or storage shed! And if you do find yourself dealing with a four-legged squatter, don’t hesitate to call a professional and have the animal evicted.