Impacts of Feeding Wildlife
Thank you for not feeding wildlife.
Wanting to be close to nature, connect with animals, and provide support when they may seem hungry or in need, are kind, compassionate human responses. However, providing food to animals will affect their behaviour, and that can lead to significant consequences.
This page was created to amalgamate research, explanations, tools, and resources to help communities across Canada keep wildlife wild and mitigate negative encounters.
How Does Feeding Change Behaviours?
There are numerous examples of behavioural changes caused by feeding, from the atypically high volume of coyotes biting individuals in Stanley Park in 2020 to a black bear approaching a tourist at an Alberta bus stop. Positive reinforcement – the same behavioural model we use to train dogs to sit, come on command, or pick up a toy – is the cause.
Food can be an extremely high-value reward for many animals. When presented with this reward repeatedly, animals will make a connection between the behaviour and the reward. An example of this can be seen in many urban parks, where squirrels or chipmunks may approach people or follow them down a trail: these are animals who have been rewarded with food for approaching people. Every time the animal is given the reward (food) they make an association between the behaviour and the reward: approaching people will result in good things happening.
This can be seen with birds returning to bird feeders, raccoons standing at back doors or congregating around outdoor pet food dishes, and coyotes approaching and showing demand behaviour (nipping or biting due to the expectation of a food reward – like how a dog may nudge or mouth at a person come dinner time).
While these behaviours can be challenged through aversion conditioning, larger animals like coyotes, foxes, or black bears are likely be to killed by government agencies who believe the risk to people is untenable. In British Columbia, hundreds of black bears are killed every year as a result of making associations between people and places, and food sources. Coyotes are commonly trapped and killed in municipalities when such behaviours are displayed.
Ecosystems, be they in dense urban areas or rural regions, are full of organisms that interact with one another. This includes all the bacteria, plant life, insects, and animals. Even in urban areas, most animals will find plentiful natural food sources. But when provided food by people, this can have ripple effects.
For example, feeding birds and allowing the seed to spill or sit will attract rodents like mice or rats. Mice and rats are prey species to many animals, including foxes and coyotes. When these larger animals learn that a regular food source (rats or mice) may be available in a specific location, they will keep returning to said location. In an urban or suburban environment, this means a single bird feeder could be keeping larger wildlife from moving into more appropriate habitats or finding natural food sources.
This type of attractant can also cause wildlife of many species to gather in numbers larger than they usually would. Congregations of animals creates significant opportunity for the spreading of disease. Currently (late spring 2023), highly-pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) is circulating primarily in poultry and waterfowl species of birds; however, documentation of mammals like skunks, raccoons, red foxes, and domestic cats and dogs contracting this virus with lethal results is growing. By ensuring that people are not causing animals to gather in higher numbers, we can help prevent the spread of zoonotic disease.
Providing anthropogenic (human made) food sources can also cause a local population of a species to become inflated. If a raccoon can get a secure, ongoing food source from a backyard, she is likely to have more kits, and is unlikely to move on from that location. This means, over time, more and more raccoons than the ecosystem can naturally handle will be born. When the artificial food supply ultimately ends, the risk of starvation and negative encounters with people will escalate. This inflation of population can also lead to greater negative encounters with people and pets.
Providing food to prevent specific species from entering a subdivision, protect pets, or simply to keep the desired animal in their habitat, is something The Fur-Bearers hears about occasionally. Along with supplementary feeding (because there’s a belief there isn’t enough natural food available), this intentional feeding typically leads to negative consequences or encounters between animals, people, and pets.
Diversionary feeding is a tool that can be used during extreme events by experts to ensure species survival; however, it is essential that this not be taken on by an individual, but a larger group, including ecologists/biologists, municipal authorities’ oversight, input from provincial wildlife officials, and as part of a larger strategy. Failure to include these other parties can result in significant encounters between people and wildlife, who have come to expect food at a specific location. For example, providing kibble to coyotes to try and keep them in a naturalized urban area and away from a subdivision will only ensure that coyotes remain present, remove their reliance on natural food sources (which can lead to other ecological issues), and create a point of conflict should people or pets come across this location.
In another example, a resident of Alberta was feeding black bears to try and keep them out of town. Sadly, the bears learned to spend time in the area due to this food source, and several were killed by government agents for displaying what they call “food conditioning” or “habituation”.
“Bear-selfies” became a phenomenon in the last 20 years, with the advent of digital photography and cell phone manufacturers making cameras an essential part of every device. This was frequently seen around national parks in Alberta, where individuals would attempt to get a photo of themselves with wildlife in the background. Generally, turning ones back on wildlife is inadvisable for safety reasons. Further, wild animals have few communication tools to tell people to back off when they feel at risk. Black bears may clap jaws or bluff charge, but these can be viewed as aggression – and lead to the bear being killed. Coyotes may growl or vocalize, or stand their ground – and that can lead to the coyote being killed.
Even placing peanuts for raccoons or squirrels to take a photo in a park will teach those animals to continue to expect food sources from people. A single photographer offering a single peanut seems like a small exchange; however, when multiplied several times per month over the years, it’s a significant impact on behaviour of animals and their diets.
To the chagrin of children across Canada, we don’t have fast food for dinner every day – high fat, high caloric value, and low nutritional value doesn’t make for healthy people. The same is true of wildlife. Peanuts, as an example, are high in fat and oils, and low in nutrients essential for squirrels, raccoons, chipmunks, and others. Filling up on peanuts means these animals are less likely to forage or hunt for their natural food sources, and ultimately lead to poorer health. This can also lead to unforeseen ecological consequences, as is the case in Burlington’s Royal Botanical Gardens.
Various species of birds can also become very ill from specific food items, such as breads. Every species has specific nutritional requirements and altering that intake can have significant health consequences over time – just like it does if people eat fast food multiple times a day, every day.
Alternatives to Feeding
Wanting to support local wildlife, particularly with ongoing development across Canada in the face of the climate crisis, is logical and kind. Fortunately, there are several ways you can support wildlife without causing behavioural changes by feeding.
Backyards full of grass and nothing else do little for an ecosystem; one with native shrubs, bushes, trees, and other types of vegetation can provide shelter and food sources for a variety of animals. Introducing native, pollinator-friendly flowers can help: these will attract insects that help spread pollen and grow more native plants, as well as provide food sources throughout the year for birds and small mammals (who in turn can support larger animals).
Connect with your local naturalist club or a landscape architect to help you rewild your property in a manner that’s safe and within your municipality’s by-laws.
It’s easy to forget that maintained trails or parks don’t just belong to people but are part of an elaborate ecosystem. When we walk our dogs or allow cats outdoors, we’re entering that ecosystem, which is the home for a significant number of wild animals. Keeping dogs leashed, or utilizing designated leash-free zones, and keeping cats indoors or leashed can prevent harassment of wildlife that sometimes leads back to negative encounters with people or pets. Cat lovers can investigate catios as an option to give their feline friends outdoor time, while keeping them – and wildlife – safe.
This also goes for recreationalists, such as runners, cyclists, hikers, or other outdoor sports: disrupting natural spaces for these activities can have a deleterious effect on wildlife, and lead to negative interactions. Do your best to find appropriate spaces for these activities, and be respectful of whose home you may be using.
The Fur-Bearers are pleased to release our Urban Feeding of Fur-Bearing Wildlife literature review. This review, compiled by Amelia Porter, MSc, EP, RPBio, organizes and provides an overview of the available studies and general state of knowledge related to wildlife feeding in urban areas.
Municipalities continue to face an increased need to manage wildlife-related issues, even though wildlife is traditionally managed by provinces. Bylaws that create rules surrounding and consequences for feeding wildlife act as both educational and enforcement tools for communities. Click here to view a list of sample bylaws that can help your municipality create a functional wildlife feeding bylaw.