Backyard Wildlife: Blessing or Bane?

White-tailed deer are perhaps the most prevalent large mammals in North America. While these furry creatures are often admired from afar, controversy arises once they begin to directly affect the lives of human beings. Namely, when deer flourish in metropolitan areas, conflicts can occur with homeowners, drivers, or landscapers.

Every year, deer cause damage to gardens, landscaping, and crops. Additionally, they are responsible for approximately one million vehicle collisions in the United States annually, according to the Northeast Wildlife Damage Cooperative. Among the problematic issues caused by deer, perhaps the most controversial is the simple act of feeding them, which some believe disrupts the balance of suburbia.

While deer are a common example of four-legged suburban residents, the hungry backyard animal realm extends further to include a variety of critters. Junior Sarah Carlson, who lives on a wooded road in Farmington Hills, sees a diverse population of creatures.

“I see a lot of different animals around my house all the time,” said Carlson. “There’s deer, rabbits, squirrels, mice, raccoons, possum, and even coyotes sometimes.”

Carlson says her family feeds the animals that come on their property, which consists of seven acres. Although the food is intended for deer and birds, other animals enjoy, too.

Like Carlson, millions of people provide food for critters in their backyards. Over 55 million Americans feed birds and other animals around their homes, according to the Wild Bird Feeding Industry (WBFI). While feeding wildlife is a leisurely pastime, it generates big business. Regarding bird feeding alone, Americans spend over $3.8 billion on feeders, bird seed, and other accessories, according to the WBFI.

However, many people strongly oppose feeding wildlife altogether. An increase in evidence seems to show that feeding wildlife has consequences on the animals that are trying to be helped. One of the biggest concerns is providing food to wild animals that is not nutritionally beneficial. Mary Jo Sicurella, the Humane and Wildlife Educator at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, told WGRZ of Buffalo, NY that certain foods are not good for animals.

“Sometimes people aren’t feeding them what the animals naturally need,” said Sicurella. “People like to feed birds bread and things like that, but, unfortunately, that’s like us eating cheese puffs. You know, it’s really not very healthy.”

Some experts believe feeding animals from a young age causes their foraging skills to be undeveloped, only hurting their chance of survival. Others say feeding wildlife can cause animals to acclimate to humans, which will change their behavior. Animals that are unafraid to approach people for food can be mistaken as rabid or aggressive and often get put to death.

One expert, Matt Zymanek of the Hawk Creek Wildlife Center in Buffalo, NY, told WGRZ he believes feeding animals can have a large-scale effect. According to Zymanek, supplying food for wild animals can change the size of a species’ population, thus upsetting the entire balance of an ecosystem. Even during the winter when food is scarce, he instructs others to resist feeding animals to let nature take its course.

“During the winter, it is tougher for [animals] to find food, but you don’t need to feed them,” said Zymanek. “Only the strongest will survive, and that’s the balance of nature, unfortunately. If there’s too many animals that survive the winter then all of a sudden we deal with other problems in the spring.”

Among the divided opinions, many organizations dedicated to helping animals advocate taking an approach that they say will best help the animal, that is, providing a habitat but not handouts. This idea, coined as “naturescaping” by paws.org, involves providing landscape features to give animals shelter, food, and water. According to this organization, this option is the most beneficial. It provides wildlife with the necessities they need while eliminating the potential danger from human-provided food sources and the risks that come with it. Naturescaping allows homeowners to enjoy wildlife while keeping a safe distance for them and the animals.