Shorter days and chilly mornings remind many of us to fill the bird feeders. And for too many people, it’s also a reminder to resume feeding deer. And that makes wildlife biologists cringe.
According to Pennsylvania Game Commission wildlife veterinarian Dr. Justin Brown, “There are no benefits to feeding white-tailed deer,” he told me recently. “And that goes for elk, too.” In fact, Dr. Brown says feeding deer does far more harm than good. I know this will be hard for many readers to believe.
Four years ago I wrote a column explaining why feeding deer was bad for deer. I still get several letters about it every month. I think that column with my email address pops up if you Google “feeding deer.”
I’ve lost count, but it’s safe to say that I’ve received several hundred letters and emails about feeding deer. To be fair, most expressed shock that feeding deer could be harmful. And most of these readers pledged to stop the practice. The rest practically bragged that they’ve been feeding deer for years, and “I’ve never found a dead deer on my property.” Some said they offer 20 to 50 pounds of corn every day. They treat deer as privately owned domestic livestock, rather than the public property of the state that it is. Everyone shares ownership of the state’s wildlife.
With winter just around the corner, the “don’t feed deer” mantra is worth repeating. It is a message that’s shared by every wildlife biologist and wildlife veterinarian I know. The Wildlife Management Institute (WMI; www.wildlifemanagementinstitute.org), an independent conservation organization, even publishes a booklet entitled, “Feeding Wildlife… Just Say No!”
Though there are many reasons feeding deer is a bad idea, first is that it wreaks havoc on the deer’s digestive system. To accommodate gradual seasonal changes in diet, the bacteria, enzymes and pH in a deer’s gut also change. Supplemental food (usually corn) provided abruptly when it gets cold upsets the digestive system and can lead to acidosis and even death. Deer with bellies full of corn can literally die of starvation because they cannot digest such a high carbohydrate diet. But, many readers counter, “I’ve never seen dead deer on my property.”
Just because you don’t see any dead deer doesn’t mean they aren’t dying. The effects of acidosis may weaken them so they are more likely to be killed by vehicles, predators, parasites, or other diseases. Note my use of the words “gradual” and “abruptly” above. Normal seasonal changes in weather and food availability occur gradually over a period of many weeks. That gives a deer’s digestive system time to adapt from a fall diet of acorns to a winter diet of woody browse. But when a snowy cold snap hits, people feel sorry for deer and suddenly offer an abundant supply of cheap corn. It’s the worst thing to do because they simply cannot handle the sudden flood of carbohydrates.
Furthermore, Dr. Brown warns that indirect effects from feeding deer can lead to density-dependent impacts. “Supplemental feeding changes movement patterns and concentrates deer at feeding stations. That causes populations to exceed the carrying capacity of the habitat,” he explained. “More deer intensify competition for food and increase aggression. These deer fight more and are prone to injury.”
Concentrations of deer also increase their susceptibility to contagious diseases and lead to over browsing of nearby forage plants. Backyard deer are notorious for destroying valuable ornamental vegetation planted to beautify backyards. Also, when deer travel to and from backyard food sources, they are more likely to die in collisions with vehicles. And the WMI’s booklet points out that “deer corn,” which is often purchased by the truckload, is often considered unfit for consumption by humans or livestock. It can be tainted by toxins produced by mold.
There is no upside to feeding deer in the backyard or on the back forty. Healthy white-tailed deer are perfectly capable of surviving cold, snowy winters without extra food from kind-hearted wildlife lovers.
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