By Sharon Wootton Herald Columnist
One caveat before I start on today’s topic of not feeding wildlife. I feed some birds. You might call me a hypocrite, but I’ll rationalize my behavior at the end of the column.
Picture this sign: Don’t feed the alligators! Makes perfect sense, right? Wild animal. Big teeth. Aggressive.
Or this sign: Don’t feed the raccoons! Wild animals. Teeth proportionate to size. Extremely strong paws. Can be aggressive.
Or: Don’t feed the mallards. Wild animals. Small. Doesn’t attack humans. Adorable babies. May eat out of your hand.
The odds are that those three signs invoked three different responses. Alligators? No brainer. Raccoons? Cute but OK, no food. Mallards? Don’t feed the mallards? Oh, come on, loosen up!
There’s not a state fish and wildlife agency in the country that encourages people to feed wildlife, whatever size or shape.
Your treat is an animal’s junk food. Their digestive systems are different than our digestive system, and some of our food can literally plug up some wild animals’ digestive tracts, sicken them and, in some cases, kill them.
And why feed them when we know there is enough food?
What we do changes animal behaviors, including turning some into panhandlers that, when food is not forthcoming, can turn aggressive.
What we need to do is change our own behaviors.
Olive Bisbee has changed hers because the change helps wildlife. She lives next to the Walter E. Hall Golf Course in Everett, near a small pond.
“I once fed the mallards although deep down I knew better. I just fed a few, a couple of hybrids, an injured male … I really did not feed them when there were a half-dozen or more,” Bisbee said.
“When the babies came this spring, I stopped feeding them. They were so little, and I didn’t want them to get started eating bread (or cracked corn). They needed to learn to eat on their own. I was really bad, and I won’t do it again.”
Let’s take a look at some of our own behaviors that could be tweaked. Leaving dog food outside is the first step down a slippery slope.
First it’s the raccoons and opossums. The same food can attract coyotes, who might prefer your cat to dog food.
Keep the food inside, particularly at night. Dispose of your garbage in a metal can that has a tight lid. Raccoons aren’t very discriminating when it comes to differentiating aluminum foil or plastic wrap and the food that’s sticking to it. Ingesting any wrap is dangerous to their health.
When we leave food easily accessible, it can change a nocturnal animal’s natural routine. It can decrease the natural fear of humans, putting people and animals at risk.
When the carrot of persuasion doesn’t work, some municipalities turn to the stick. Tacoma, where a raccoon attacked a jogger this summer, has a $532 citation for anyone caught feeding animals in the city’s parks.
Now about those backyard birds. I feed birds, as do most people if they’re honest about it, basically because I am entertained by the sights, sounds and behaviors.
I also feed birds three seasons of the year and cut back in the summer when food is plentiful.
My rationale is this: Feeding black-oiled sunflower seeds or suet blocks, and providing water and natural habitat, does not put backyard birds into danger (as long as the feeders are spread out and cleaned regularly), or significantly alter their behavior.
Backyard birds flock to food sources, and they make their rounds; a feeder is just one stop. Feeders are emptied at night so the seed doesn’t attract other creatures. Natural habitat has been kept.
I don’t feed ducks.
For more information about living with wildlife, go to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website, www.wdfw.wa.gov, or read Russell Link’s “Living with Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest.”
Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.