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Wildlife and Cold Weather
By Linda Owens
Cruel frost and freezing temperatures drive us into our warm homes, shelters gear up for the homeless, and emergency planners swing into gear. But what about the animals?
Just like us, the animals of the Puget Sound are not used to this extended and deep cold. They are used to a hard freeze then a thaw that provides them with access to water, easier foraging, and the ability to conserve energy. What do they need to survive this unusual weather? Mike Pratt, Director of Wildlife Services at the West Sound Wildlife Shelter, has some ideas how you can help out our wildlife neighbors during this time of extended and drastic cold.
If you normally feed the birds, do NOT take away the feeders during drastic cold. The birds use the feeders as a supplement but an important one. Feeders are not usually their mainstay. Birds are smart enough not to depend on one food source because, in the wild, food sources change all the time. But right now they can certainly use the welcome supplement. Birds and other small critters use up a lot of energy when they forage, so, in this time of deep cold, the less energy they use, the warmer they will stay. So, clean and fill the feeders regularly. And, if you are going on vacation, have someone swing by to keep the feeders full.
If you do feed the birds, be aware that in this extreme weather, other animals will take advantage of the seeds that they might not normally want. So, don’t be surprised to find squirrels, small voles, mice, opossums, raccoons and other little critters cleaning up the spilled seed under your feeders. Recently, I saw a deer licking the seeds out of one of the feeders in my yard.
Water is very difficult to get right now, but there is plenty of ice! The deer and browsers are okay as they get moisture from plants. But you can definitely help the birds and little critters get water by thawing out your bird baths or putting a small heater in your outdoor water features or fountains. I watched a chickadee this morning sitting on the ice beside the freezing trickle of my water barrel trying for a much-needed drink. Mike says that even if you thaw out a bird bath for a short time, the critters will figure it out quickly and get a sustaining drink before it re-freezes.
As the animals become desperate, they will come closer to the houses. So, secure your garbage cans, and don’t put cat or dog food outside if you do not want to attract animals. They will definitely risk getting closer to human habitation than they normally would. And, remember that a lot of heat escapes through an open dog or cat door and critters will be drawn to the heat. Mike had a little wren at the shelter this morning who worked his way in through a dog door just looking for a warm nesting place. Mike says not to be freaked out by unusual behavior in the animals right now. Look out your window and check out the bushes close to your house with your kids and see how many little birds are cozying up to the heat of your home that you would normally not see!
Mike emphasizes that if you are going to feed, do NOT hand feed, do not be ‘friendly’ (I am thinking of the baby voice I use with the deer in my yard!), and do not encourage the animals to come up to the door or even close to the house. It’s very important to be aware of your neighbors and to respect their wishes too. They might not want animals near their homes even if you do!
If you provide birdfeeders, do NOT take them away in this drastic cold. The birds need the supplement and it saves them from wasting precious energy to forage. Keep them filled. Mike recommends black sunflower seeds…..the ground critters eat these too.
Provide water – thaw out your bird baths or place bird bath heaters in your water features and bird baths. If you notice a Douglas squirrel return time and again to the frozen bird bath, it means he is using precious energy and is still thirsty!
Some hummingbirds do stay around. To my amazement, I saw one two weeks ago. So, if you have a feeder, put it out now. You will have to thaw it regularly too.
If you do feed the animals, try to use natural food and fruits. Have your kids decorate for Christmas with bird-friendly outdoor decorations – popcorn strings, edible seed bird houses, suet, and corn for squirrels. Do not use bread or food scraps.
Do not feed animals near the house and respect the wishes of your neighbors about the proximity of wild animals. Secure your garbage cans and don’t put out cat or dog food. Animals are getting desperate so they will come closer to your home.
Save your Christmas tree. Once xmas is over, this makes a superior habitat for the little guys. Just clear it of tinsel, put it outside on its side, and watch your new neighbors settle in!
See our list of fun winter crafts you and your family can make that help wildlife.