Living on the Lake: Helping wildlife survive tough winters
After a severe winter that wore out its welcome long before it ended, many people in northern Wisconsin are concerned about how area wildlife has fared. Their concern is not unfounded. DNR reports of dead deer and turkeys in the northern part of the state are testament to the severity of this past winter. At many DNR stations, particularly in the north, the Winter Severity Index as of February was rated severe to very severe.
As of this writing, winter’s impact on wildlife populations has yet to be determined. Even though the calendar says spring is here, local wildlife isn’t out of the woods, so to speak. As DNR wildlife biologist Jeremy Holtz explains, “Every day winter holds on magnifies its effects on our deer, and even on the fawns that will be born this spring.” Birds who survived the snow and bitter cold over the winter may also still be threatened. This is because warmer daytime temperatures and melting snow may result in trapped water that can harbor the bacteria Salmonellosis.
“Really, until the snow is gone, things green up and it is time for wildlife to bear young, it will be hard to say how our wildlife has fared,” Holtz says.
Many people who live here do so because they enjoy watching the abundant wildlife in the region, and it’s understandable that some of these people want to help their four-legged and winged neighbors by feeding them. Despite good intentions on the part of the person doing the feeding, artifi cial food sources can have severe unintended consequences on wildlife.
“Wildlife species that reside in Wisconsin year round are adapted to winter, and their bodies physically change to allow survival in our climate,” Holtz says, adding that feeding wild animals can make them susceptible to illness, injury or even starvation.
Furthermore, he explains, when animals routinely congregate in locations where food is provided for them, there’s a good chance that predators will also start hanging around for easy meals. “I have gotten calls about hawks taking birds from feeders and wolves taking deer right behind houses,” Holtz says. “If you feed wildlife, you’re going to attract all kinds of wildlife and you should not be surprised when other wildlife species choose to take advantage of your hospitality as well.”
The act of feeding animals is a way of engaging with the natural world, and Holtz says it’s for this reason that he connection with nature.
“I can’t answer whether feeding is a good idea, because everyone has different values and beliefs,” he says. “But one person feeding does not provide enough sustenance to keep an animal alive through the winter – it gives the feeder a good feeling and the wildlife easy food.” And, he points out, when wild animals are suffering from the impact of a harsh winter, it may already be too late to put out food.
That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s futile to try to help wild animals get through the winter. It just means that for people who want to ensure that the wildlife around them has a better chance of surviving the coldest season, it will do more good to take proactive steps.
“Wildlife is best equipped for the weather extremes when it has the habitat to support it,” Holtz says. There are a number of ways for property owners to create habitats and food supplies for wild creatures, among them managing trees and other vegetation on one’s property to provide habitat. Cutting some trees to encourage new growth and growing a variety of native plants and grasses to provide food for wildlife are steps that will pay off big dividends.
In addition, providing shelter will offer animals refuge from predators and protection from the elements.
“Putting out feed in the winter may not have as much benefi t as managing the trees or plants on your property year round,” Holtz says, “so that fawns are born and raised healthy and strong, have a place to escape predators and can feed up and put on fat before winter sets in during the summer and fall.”
Tips for helping wildlife stay healthy in any season
• Build a brush pile in an unused part of the property (away from the house) to provide shelter for smaller animals. It’s a simple way to help animals and it’s free. Log on to dnr.wi.gov/fi les/pdf/pubs/wm/wm0221.pdf for more information about how to construct a brush pile.
• To help keep insects at bay without using dangerous insecticides, put up a bat house. Visit dnr.wi.gov/topic/WildlifeHabitat/documents/BuildBatHouse.pdf for information on how to construct and place a bat house.
• Provide clean, fresh water for wildlife; in winter, use a heat source (not chemicals) to keep water from freezing. Clean bird baths or other water containers regularly with a brush and a solution of one part chlorine bleach to nine parts water. After scrubbing the bath, rinse it thoroughly and let it dry before refi lling. (It’s also important to clean bird feeders regularly. Remove old seed hulls and disinfect the seed feeder with a nine to one water-bleach solution to prevent the spread of disease.)
• Remember that many insects are benefi cial for gardens. Insects also provide food for other animals. Avoid using chemical-fi lled pesticides.
• It’s also important to avoid using toxic herbicides or fertilizers that can harm animals.