Last week’s column on the perils of feeding deer corn in winter generated more mail than anything I’ve written in years. Many readers were mortified that their good intentions may have done more harm than good.
Here are a few excerpts from e-mails from concerned readers.
“I only put out a few cups of corn twice a day. Am I harming the deer with such a small amount of corn?”
“We feed deer year round. In our minds, we have been supporting nature.”
“We have been feeding deer all winter. Should we stop cold turkey, slowly reduce the amount of corn, or keep feeding as we have for the rest of the winter? We just want to do the right thing.”
“I am sick. I had no idea we could be harming deer by feeding them. We mostly give them bread, crackers, and cookies. Now I don’t know what to do. They are gathering outside our windows as I write.”
“Is corn OK for squirrels and birds?”
The root of this problem is that many people relate to deer as they relate to people. They see deer moving through deep snow in frigid temperatures and imagine how they would feel.
But white-tailed deer are well adapted to surviving severe winter weather. They prepare in the summer and fall by eating more and putting on layers of fat. When winter arrives, they become more sedentary, they eat less, and they use their stored fat.
Those who feed large amounts of corn do the most damage because, as I explained last week, deer’s winter digestive system is not equipped to handle a high carbohydrate diet such as corn. In winter, they eat woody browse — twigs, buds, and stems.
In a perfect world, no one would feed deer. Period. That’s the advice from Jerry Feaser, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. And Dr. Anne Ballmann, veterinarian and wildlife disease specialist for the National Wildlife Health Center agrees.
Furthermore, when we feed deer (anything, not just corn), we cause them to burn extra calories to travel farther than they normally would. And they feed in large groups.
Ballmann warned that when deer feed in large groups competing for a limited food supply, deer come in close contact and easily transmit diseases and parasites. And if feeding stations are near busy roads, more deer are hit and killed by traffic.
Feaser suggests that rather than feed deer, land owners should plant native trees and shrubs that provide food (nuts and fruits) and cover (evergreens). “That’s one of the ways the PGC manages deer habitat on game lands,” he said.
But we live in an imperfect world where people often don’t do what’s best. So here’s my advice, based on my own experience and conversations with a variety of professional wildlife biologists.
• If you’ve been offering large amounts of corn, say more than 10 pounds per week, stop. You are the primary problem. You are killing deer because they cannot digest bellies full of corn. They may not die in your backyard, but they’ll die elsewhere, out of sight, where their suffering will be no less.
Or maybe as acidosis overwhelms their digestive system, they’ll slow down just enough to get hit by cars or caught by coyotes.
• If you have truly just been putting out a handful of corn each day and you’ve been doing it all winter, or you’re mixing corn with bird seed, the deer’s digestive system has probably adapted to that diet. Adopt a “no corn” policy next winter.
• If you’re offering day old bread and pastries, stop. Though a variety of birds and mammals will eat these handouts, they just provide gut-stuffing empty calories.
• Squirrels and birds are not ruminants, so corn does not effect their digestion the way it does deer. No one I’ve talked to suggested that corn is bad for squirrels or birds.
• Finally, use common sense. No one really knows how much corn is needed to induce acidosis in deer, but it occurs when they eat large amounts of corn and little or no woody browse. If you’re putting out more than 10 pounds of corn each week, it’s probably too much.