ANDERSON — When snow covers the ground and subzero temperatures freeze the state, it’s almost impossible not to worry about the wild critters living outdoors.
Though it might seem like the birds, squirrels, raccoons and deer stuck outside in the freezing weather might need to be rescued, many naturalists warn a helping hand could do more harm than good.
“The reality is that most animals are pretty well adapted to this area … they really don’t need supplemental food. Realistically, it’s not necessary,” said Kent Hanauer, District 4 biologist with the Indiana Department of Natural resources.
Though the squirrel or bird might look pitiful sitting on a frozen branch deep in snow, or searching for food on the icy ground, wildlife living in Indiana are just as prepared for the snow as humans.
“Those types of cold temps, many of the animals we have here live quite a bit farther north,” Hanauer said.
And though it might seem like a good idea to provide food on feeders for squirrels and birds, a natural winter scarcity helps to ensure wild populations stay at sustainable levels.
“There are natural food services out there that support appropriate levels for wildlife,” he said.
Instead of offering supplemental food, Megan Dillon, south urban biologist at DNR, said homeowners should work to build up a natural habitat that offers birds and small mammals shelter and food throughout the winter.
“The best types of habitat are providing food and cover, and particularly the types of food services that will stay on into these late months,” Dillon said.
These include native wild flowers and shrubbery that both offer animals respite from extreme winds or snow while also offering flowers, roots and other vegetation for them to eat.
“The difference between being able to stay dry and out of the wind makes all the difference in their survival,” she added.
There is an exception...
However, there is one caveat. For songbirds, which many people prefer to attract, supplemental feeding through a bird feeder can be helpful to keep them around.
But, Dillon cautions, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about it.
“These songbirds are unique because they benefit from the supplement,” she said. “But it’s not for the faint of heart; you need to research pretty well, make sure those feeders are clean (and) not attracting non-target species.”
Besides that, Dillon doesn’t recommend squirrel feeders or salt licks for deer, because they bring their own issues with them.
“We have issues with both squirrel pox and a skin fungus that squirrels can get; those are both much more prevalent, it seems, in areas where animals are being fed, because many will congregate around those areas,” she said.
Offering easy sources of food for animals can also make them dependent on human sources — leading species to come closer to humans and increasing chances for harmful contact.
Deer, especially, are likely to become accustomed to easy food and stop foraging, instead relying on humans, even eating food out of bird feeders if they are accessible.
And when the food dries up, deer are known to become a nuisance by bumping on doors and windows, possibly destroying property, to get their easy meal, DNR officials warn.
Feeding wild animals also disrupts their natural biology. Mammals are physically prepared for winter, inside and out. Growing out bushy coats, stocking up on food in the fall and slowing their metabolism during the winter are all ways animals prepare themselves for harsh winters.
And leaving out food that brings desirable wildlife to your backyard also has a chance of attracting destructive or undesirable animals near or inside a person’s home.
The DNR urges homeowners to bring bird feeders inside during the night to avoid attracting raccoons or opossums, which are known to sneak into attics. Pet owners should also feed animals inside or clean up after their pet eats outside to avoid attracting animals.
Dillon also asks homeowners to be considerate of their neighbors. While a person’s home might be sealed and protected, bringing wildlife to your backyard, she said, could mean they look for places to live around the neighborhood.
“Habituation in general can become a problem," she cautioned. "Someone has a squirrel feeder up and their home is fine, but their neighbor’s home isn’t secure and the squirrel rests in the neighbors' attic.”
The Humane Society urges people planning to feed wildlife to create what it calls a “Humane Backyard.”
Homeowners should look to provide natural food sources like native plants, bushes and trees, instead of commercial feed that can act as “junk food,” instead of sustainable nutrition.
People with larger yards could also consider building a brush pile with downed limbs and dead brush away from any structures to act as a home for wild animals. For people with bird feeders, make windows bird-safe by putting up a window screen or tape strips to ward away birds that can injure themselves by crashing into the glass.
Homeowners can also take steps to prevent destructive wildlife from taking advantage of bird feeders and baths. Pruning or trimming trees to 10 feet away from a home and ensuring chimneys are properly covered as well as sealing holes or repairing broken or damaged foundations are all ways to keep wild animals outside.
“The general take home message is: keep wildlife wild and work on creating great habitat wherever you can squeeze it in,” Dillon said.