Article by Elizabeth Trickey, Photos by Jennifer Howard
To feed, or not to feed: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in nature to suffer
The sad eyes of our furry friends,
Or to set out a few treats against a sea of wisdom….
OK, enough of Shakespeare, though I am sure he left out peanuts for the squirrels that roamed his gardens! You know how I know that? There is actually a novel called “Shakespeare for Squirrels”!
Feeding wildlife is a dilemma. We know that in the wild, all species are part of the “predator-prey” dance, and that nothing lives forever. We know that nature developed a perfect balance of species, including making sure there is food enough for all, no matter the season. Do we need to feed the wildlife around us? No, we don’t. But ask anyone with a warm heart, and you’ll understand that critter need has nothing to do with it. It is human need.
So where does that leave us? Back to Shakespeare, questioning whether it is wise to feed the wildlife in our neighbourhoods.
Most people get excited seeing wild mammals. We are in awe when we spot a moose, deer, or bear (as long as we are safely in our cars or houses!). We get a kick out of watching the squirrels and chipmunks chase each other and play in our yards. People pay big money to go on tours where they can view wildlife in their natural habitat. So I can see that humans want to encourage a plethora of wildlife to visit their properties, and setting out food for them is a good way of doing that.
A good question at this point is what animals are you hoping to come by for a visit? Food left out for wildlife (or even outdoor pets) is accessible to all critters within the habitat. It’s not as though you can put a sign up that says “For Chipmunks Only”. OK, you could put the sign up, but the raccoons and skunks will just laugh at you!
A possible problem with leaving food outside is that some animals, like rats, weasels, hawks, coyotes, foxes, snakes, dogs, and cats, are all predators of squirrels and chipmunks. The more you encourage these lovable critters to come to your property, the more of its predators will also come calling. And not for the treats you are leaving out.
What is worse is that all critters leave calling cards. The smaller the animal, the smaller the scat, so you will hardly notice their tiny droppings. But foxes, raccoons and skunks – their scat is not only larger (think dog and cat size), but these animals are Rabies Vector Species. As well, at least half of all raccoons in Ontario play host to roundworm parasites that live happily in their intestines. Raccoon scat can contain millions of worm eggs and these eggs can live for years just waiting for a host! You, your kids, and your pets are all at risk of accidentally ingesting these eggs or even just breathing them in.
Feeding wildlife comes with a host of problems that perhaps people are not aware. One of these issues is the legality of feeding wildlife. Each municipality has its own laws, one of which could be that feeding wild mammals is illegal and you can be fined, and not just a few dollars. Before you even think of purchasing seeds and nuts, or even setting out tidbits from your own groceries, make sure you know the laws in your area.
Now, you’re probably thinking “But hold it, stores sell wildlife food, so it must be OK”. My thoughts, exactly. Grocery and hardware stores all carry critter food, and we even have specialty stores that cater to wildlife. However, municipalities may OK the feeding of some birds, but not all wildlife. Again, how do you put out feed for songbirds without other animals helping themselves?
Mentioned earlier was the human need that animals seem to fill. Most people have pets like cats, dogs, birds, horses, and pigs, to name a few. We have domesticated many species over the years, giving them a place in our homes and our hearts, spoiling them rotten. So it’s not surprising that humans like to encourage wildlife to come around by feeding them. Sometimes it’s even preferable than having a pet since you don’t need to scoop their poo, find sitters when you go away on holiday, or have birthday parties for them! Convenient!
So what do you do? Feed wildlife anyway, and take the chance of getting fined? Have them become dependent on your food source, and when you are not there, they might not know where or how to forage? Risk attracting animals you don’t want on your property? Encourage them to be comfortable around humans when not all people want them around? Possibly make them sick by feeding them the wrong foods? Who wants any of those things to happen?
However, there is a compromise in all of this. You can make sure that none of those negative things happen to you or the wildlife you love, and still feed them. How, you ask? By providing natural living and feeding areas on your property. Remember at the beginning of this article, it was stated that nature provides for all life? Give nature a little nudge by making your property wildlife friendly.
The first thing would be to make sure animals have places to live – put up nesting boxes for birds or bat houses, leave that old tree standing since it will be a great home for critters like raccoons and squirrels, your deck and old shed can be lived in or under by skunks or opossums, keep bushes, wood and rock piles, long grasses, hollow logs, or brush piles for toads, chipmunks and rabbits to hide in.
Wildlife will also need a water source, so you could build a small pond or just have items around that could collect rain water. And since this is a natural plan, because you want to encourage wildlife to visit without outrightly feeding them, you will need to provide a food source. Research the foods that the animals you want to attract like to eat. Plant berry bushes, fruit trees, pine trees, wildflower seed, and the types of flowers that butterflies and bees pollinate. Let the clover grow in your lawn. Have a vegetable garden.
And if you weaken, and occasionally sneak your critter friends extra treats, make sure you give them foods that are natural and healthy for them. Too many peanuts are not good for squirrels because they have little nutritional value and may contain a fungal toxin. An interesting fact is that squirrels can be allergic to peanuts! Do your research first to ensure you are allowed to feed wildlife in your area, and if you can, please give our furry and feathered friends what is good for them.
Another way to legally feed critters is to donate to Procyon Wildlife. The babies in our care require a specialized formula that is very expensive. And our adults, depending on the species, eat raw meat, fish, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. Your donation will help to purchase the necessary foods to keep our wildlife healthy.
As this article began with Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, it will also end with it:
With this regard their health at stake,
And lose the name of wild. – Careful you now!
The fair chipmunk! Fauna, in thy thoughts
Be all my indiscretions remember’d!