By Kate Burke
Living with Wildlife Advisory Board
The Four Corners is blessed with abundant, beautiful wildlife. We all love seeing deer, elk, turkeys and their furred and winged cousins. Especially in winter, it’s tempting to put out food to encourage these visitors and in an effort to help them through their tough season. Please don’t do it. Feeding wildlife in almost all instances is bad for them, bad for us and usually illegal.
Feeding wildlife causes all kinds of problems. Animals grow dependent on the handouts and fail to migrate or otherwise take care of themselves. The food we offer may not be what’s best for them, filling their bellies with poor quality or even harmful nutrients.
Feeding congregates animals together in large groups, greatly increasing the spread of disease. Large groups of prey animals (deer, birds, squirrels, etc.) bring the attention of large predators (coyotes, mountain lions, bears, etc.), which clearly is undesirable. Our well-intentioned food offerings can backfire, causing unnecessary deaths from disease or euthanasia of “problem” predators.
Beside, state, county and city laws prohibit feeding wildlife. For example, Colorado Parks and Wildlife reminds the public that feeding deer, bears and elk is illegal under state law. La Plata County’s ordinances seek to reduce conflicts between wildlife and people by regulating the handling of outdoor trash (a very attractive food source for wildlife). Durango city ordinances prohibit “interfering with” wildlife on city property, which may very well include feeding.
The bottom line is: Don’t feed wild animals. Don’t set out food you may think of as helpful, such as hay or corn. If you have a dense and luscious garden, fence it so it doesn’t become a deer buffet. If you have a natural landscape of native plants, enjoy them but don’t do anything additional to attract or congregate animals.
This all leads to a tricky question among wildlife experts: to hang those bird feeders or not? Feeding songbirds is not illegal. Agencies such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife mostly are silent on the question. A group of finches at your feeder is unlikely to create a mountain lion problem for you.
However, that seed also is attractive to deer, squirrels and raccoons, leading to the kinds of problems mentioned above. Certainly, bears heading into or coming out of hibernation gladly will empty our seed feeders and hummingbird nectar, which only goes bad places for the bears and for us.
Also, songbirds probably are just as susceptible to problems of over-dependence, disease and imbalanced nutrition as any other animals. So, what to do about the birds? Observe your particular wild neighbors, and be mindful of your immediate surroundings: Is your particular feeder likely to bring in throngs of deer and rodents?
Educate yourself about songbird behavior and biology. Can you attract and support appropriate birds at the right time in their migration route (out of reach of deer and bears) and then pull it all in when that season has passed?
Learning about our wild neighbors makes watching them that much more fun. Enjoy the animals and a well-thought-out bird feeder if you like, but be careful that you are not unintentionally harming your wild neighbors.
Kate Burke, a local attorney, is a member of the La Plata County Living with Wildlife Advisory Board.