We’ve all been told not to feed wild animals, that it’s not good for them and that Mother Nature knows better how to handle them than humans do. But we just can’t help ourselves, can we?
A case in point is the disastrous effect feeding deer in winter can have on the poor animals. Where I live, you can’t drive anywhere in the countryside with seeing a sign saying “deer apples for sale,” “corn for deer” or “deer carrots cheap” and such. Deer-lovers think they’re helping them through a tough season by feeding them. At least, that’s what they say, but of course, the real reason they feed deer is to bring them closer to their homes so they can observe them. They’re just so cute!
But Mother Nature designed deer to survive long, cold winters without human help. Yes, there will be a certain amount of winter mortality, but that’s part of Ma Nature’s plan to weed out weaker animals and to keep populations in check. Letting wild animals fend for themselves is not cruel, it’s the healthiest way for them to live.
What the Experts Say
If you ask biologists and other deer specialists, you’ll find they are unanimous: casually feeding deer in winter is not good for them! And there are many reasons why, such as:
Deer were designed by Mother Nature to follow the seasons. If the summer, they eat fresh leaves and berries and their bodies are good at digesting them. By late fall, though, their digestive system undergoes massive changes and they become much more efficient at digesting “winter browse”: branches of shrubs, trees and conifers, which are fiber-rich and protein-poor. At the same time, they lose their ability to properly digest sugars and starches. So even if they willingly eat fruits, roots, grains, bread, etc. in winter (after all, harmful or not, they taste great!) if people supply them, they are no longer able to digest them properly. Even hay and alfalfa, which they consumed efficiently in the summer, are hard for them to digest in winter. Thus, many die of hunger even when their belly is full … of inedible food!
Plus deer eating the wrong foods may start to suffer from diarrhea, bloating, rumenitis and various inflammations caused by this almost toxic diet and these diseases can weaken and eventually kill them as well.
In addition, feeding deer artificially tends to bring them closer to residences whereas, in the winter, nature had planned for them to retreat deep into the woods in what are known as deer yards where there is plenty of browse. This proximity to people increases mortality due to road accidents, dog and coyote attacks and also, sadly, poaching.
The animals thus feed gather in larger than normal numbers and this overcrowding makes them more prone to infectious diseases like chronic wasting disease, mange and tuberculosis as well as parasites (ticks, for example).
Yes, feeding deer can increase tick numbers exponentially … later leading to humans being bitten by ticks and suffering from Lyme disease, which ticks carry. So people who feed deer may actually make themselves, friends and family ill!
Is It Even Legal?
In many areas, feeding deer is actually illegal, so look into that before you begin.
A Healthy Attitude
Here’s what Forests, Wildlife and Parks Quebec says about the artificial feeding of deer in winter, but you’ll find forestry and wildlife services everywhere deliver a similar message:
“Please take the well-being of deer into consideration. They are wild animals and we invite you to let nature take care of them. We do not recommend artificial feeding of deer in winter for recreational purposes.”
If You Can’t Resist
If you insist on feeding deer despite the advice of biologists and experts, here are some guidelines:
- Prefer branches (maple, arborvitae, birch, etc.) over artificial foods;
- If you need to use artificial foods, prefer deer pellets: high in fiber and low in protein;
- Choose several feed sites (to promote better dispersal of animals), always well away from any roads or homes;
- If you start feeding in the fall, continue until snow melt in the spring, because deer can become dependent on artificial food sources and lose the ability to feed themselves naturally.
The above is only a brief explanation. There is plenty of information on-line about the negative effects of deer feeding in winter. Here are a few sites with further information you might find of interest: