Feeding wildlife in winter can lead to nutrient deficiencies: BC SPCA

Feeding wildlife in winter can lead to nutrient deficiencies: BC SPCA

While the recent dump of snow can make people want to leave out food for wildlife to make it easier to find, the BC SPCA says this can do more harm than good for the animals.

In the province, there are many animals that forage for food, and Andrea Wallace, BC SPCA’s manager for wild animal welfare, says it is important to leave them to do that.

“One thing to know about wild animals in the wintertime, they have to forage for food in a much wider area to be able to get the food and the nutrients they need,” Wallace said.

“So while it might seem harmless to give a squirrel or deer, some food, it really can do more harm than good. They need to forage in a wide area to get all of the nutrients that they need. And too much of one thing or the wrong thing can really be detrimental to their health, and cause them to decline quite rapidly.”

Wallace says if people leave food out for the wildlife, it can encourage them to stay in one area where they’ve found an easy source of food and only eat the provided type of food, leading to them not getting all the required nutrients.

Ann Nightingale, board member with the Rocky Point Bird Observatory, says it is still fine to leave food out for birds in this weather.

“Most of the time, our feeding birds is really more to connect with nature than for the sustenance of the birds,” Nightingale said. “But in real adverse conditions having a supplemental food source can actually be the difference between survival and not.”

In this weather, Nightingale says food that is good to leave out includes black oil sunflower seeds or suet.

On the other hand, Wallace says if people have gotten into the habit of leaving hummingbird feeders out, it is important to ensure they are kept clean and defrosted.

“It’s very important in the winter to make sure that hummingbird feeders don’t freeze,” Wallace said. “So if people are maintaining those feeders over the winter, it’s a big commitment to do that throughout the whole winter, because hummingbirds will come to rely on those feeders and it’s very difficult for them to find other sources of food if it suddenly disappeared.”

Nightingale says Anna’s hummingbirds, which are the type that stay on the Island over the winter, also eat bugs.

“If they can find insects, lots of them, they’ll be fine,” Nightingale said. “We will lose some in these cold temperatures, but we will lose fewer if they are able to find high-energy food sources like our nectar, in our feeders.”

Some ways to keep them defrosted include wrapping Christmas lights around the feeder, having multiple feeders and swap them out as one starts to freeze, bring it in at night since hummingbirds stop eating at dusk, or use fleece or wool socks wrapped around them to keep it warm. Wallace says it is also important to keep the feeders clean as they can grow bacteria that is deadly to hummingbirds.

“One thing you don’t want to do is increase the sugar content that is really bad for hummingbirds. It’s like having a chocolate bar all the time. Like that’s all you eat is chocolate bars and it’s just not healthy for them,” Wallace said. “So we want to make sure that we’re sticking with the same ratio of sugared water, which is one part sugar, four parts water, and never increase that sugar content.”

In the cold weather, Wallace says it’s important to be mindful of what material your hummingbird feeder is made of.

“It’s really important not to have feeders that have metal on them. Because they can get stuck to the metal, they can freeze to the metal,” Wallace said, noting it’s like when someone licks a metal pole in the winter.

“If it’s stuck to metal, you want to bring that into a warm environment so that it can naturally sort of warm up and melt off, but I’d also recommend always taking that animal into a wildlife rehabilitator so they can make sure there wasn’t any permanent damage or damage that needs to be fixed before releasing them again.”

Tips if someone encounters injured wildlife

During the winter, animals can be stationary for a while to regain their energy, so Wallace says there are a few steps to take before trying to help out an animal that may be in distress.

The first step, is check for any obvious signs of injury.

“Injuries still happen in the winter,” Wallace said. “Animals can still get hit by cars, birds can collide with windows, so anything that’s really obvious, like a wing is at an odd angle, and it’s clearly broken, if there’s any blood or any kind of trauma to the head or body, those are clear signs that an animal will need help.”

If there are no clear signs of injury, Wallace says to keep an eye on the animal for a little while to see what behaviour it is exhibiting.

“If you find an animal that’s in your backyard, and you’re not sure if they’re okay, or not, you know, monitor the animal for a little while, they might just need a nice safe spot to sort of chill out for a little bit,” Wallace said. “If it seems like it’s been a really long time, then I would call for advice on whether or not that animal needs help.”

Wallace says the BC SPCA Animal Helpline at 1-855-622-7722 or the BC Conservation Service can be called if you are uncertain if an animal is injured or in distress.

Laura BroughamLaura Brougham

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