By Dan Van Schaik
As the remnants of winter yield to the coming of spring, everyone asks when they should stop feeding wildlife. Too many managers equate feeders with hunting blinds and assume both should be shut down until next fall. To the contrary, it is during this transition period when most wild birds and animals are at their highest level of stress, requiring supplemental feeding the most.
By late winter, natural forages like acorns and other hardwood mast are long gone. Important agricultural crop residues from fall harvests have also been cleaned up. Decreasing winter grasses are depleted, while warm season perennials remain dormant. Nutritionally rich forbs, leaves, buds, and shoots won't emerge for a while yet. Post winter should be a time of recuperation for those strong enough to survive hunting pressure, extreme temperatures, and food shortages. In addition to overcoming cold season hardships, many wildlife species must also prepare for spring breeding/birthing condition by stockpiling energy reserves and important nutrients.
Deer- have a difficult time surviving winter in most regions. Now, bucks are licking their rutting wounds and starting to re-grow next season’s antlers, while does are preparing for fawning—all of which are nutritionally demanding. When considering trophy antler production, the quantity and quality of browse available in the previous winter season is of utmost importance to spring antler growth. Likewise, does nearing the end of gestation and preparing for summer lactation need access to critical nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
Initial re-growth of velvet antlers needs excess nutrition.
New velvet antlers are the fastest growing tissues in mammals, which may elongate at the phenomenal rate of more than 1/2 inch per day. Interactions of various hormones, enzymes, and neurotransmitters promote that fast growth, but an excess of vital nutrients during this stage is critical to ultimate development. Velvet is the last of bodily systems (skeletal, muscular, internal organs, etc.) to receive digested nutrition from hindgut; so a great surplus needs to be consumed in order to net adequate supplies to the antler. In good environmental conditions, does two years old and older will give birth to twins that require mother’s milk for at least three months.
Lactating does need supplemental feed.
An adult deer consumes five to eight pounds of total forage per day. Deer require a 16% to 22% protein diet (young juveniles need 18-20% for rapid growth; females need at least 14-16% during gestation and lactation; males should have a minimum 16-18% for new antler growth). The same deer groups often utilize 8-10% protein just for maintenance mode in warm seasons. Since the greatest source of natural protein is available from developing tips of green vegetation during spring, late summer and late winter depletion are periods of greatest nutritional deficit. Deer need year-round supplemental dry feeds along with green forages to ensure ample diet. Modern deer chows are packed with essential dietary components that are both palatable and highly digestible.
Upland birds- mostly restricted to ground travel within defined home territories, will have exhausted most of their natural food supply by late winter. They do not have the option of flying hundreds of miles in search of better food sources like their migratory cousins. However, the latest radio telemetry research demonstrates that ground birds do travel significant distances in search of food and water. That means hungry birds can (and will) walk off your management area—and if they find reliable forage sources, they won’t return. Remember, by increasing overall visitation in these critical times, you will also be increasing pre-breeding populations for spring/summer reproduction in your area.
Doves visit this deer feeder daily.
Wild turkeys- though highly dependent on deciduous mast in fall and winter, make ready use of deer feeders in the interim. Corn and deer chow are favored supplemental feeds, but they inherently love to scratch up whole grains. Such scratch feeds for turkeys include commercial Hen Scratch (containing small grains, milo, and cracked corn) spread on roads or in openings. As with most upland birds, insect consumption by growing turkey poults during summer months is imperative. Feed stations including food plots for deer also provide feeding cover and high-density insect populations (especially crickets and grasshoppers) for turkeys. Research shows year-round supplemental food plots and high-protein pelleted feeds will help increase survival and reproductive potential of turkey hens.
Turkeys quickly learn how to use deer feeders.
Bobwhite- survival and reproduction is dependent on the quality of protein in their diet. Bobwhites require up to 28% crude protein (CP) for optimum reproduction and growth. From stomach content studies, natural forages ranked on protein quality and availability were above CP thresholds, but were still deficient in 13% of essential amino acids. Particularly in the first month of life, quantities of insects are consumed to fill this protein void. Quail are known to eat at least 28 different kinds of insects that may comprise up to 17% of their total diet. Leaves or stems of grasses and herbaceous plants constitute 13-15% of their diet with the balance coming from seed producers. So, providing seeds and grains fulfills a large portion of their overall diet. The best way to offer quail food is by chumming roads and trails through preferred habitat. This method sufficiently reaches natural distribution, but keeps predators from homing in on concentrated populations that are often associated with stationary feeders. Gamebird Grow Crumbles, mixed with soybeans, small grains, cracked corn, or milo makes great chum. Commercial Hen Scratch will do fine. If you stay with these small particle feeds and apply with a broadcaster, large mammal infringement will be minimal. Because quail tend to be local residents, with a relatively small home range, chumming should continue year-round.
Bobwhites eat at deer feeder in late winter.
Migratory birds- doves, although truly migratory, can quickly become residential to favored nesting locations in open brush and farming sections of the South. Mourning doves are capable of producing up to six broods from April through September. These birds are seedeaters and thrive on a variety of agricultural and wild plant seeds. Native weeds and grasses make up their diet until late summer crops are harvested. Doves feed almost entirely on the ground, but because of their weak legs and bills, cannot scratch up vegetation to find food. For this reason it is important to provide seeds that are readily available in clean, open patches that allow fast escape. Doves, like turkeys and quail, will utilize feed residues around deer feeders, but respond unbelievably well to chumming roads with small grains near nesting/roosting areas. This provides incubating adults with a nearby energy source and squabs with ready food supply when they hit the ground. Supplemental feeding of doves will most definitely increase nesting potential and hold them in an area until food plots or dove fields ripen.
Waterfowl- require extraordinary energy to maintain extended flight during the long journey back north to nesting grounds. Also, breeding usually occurs enroute and actual nest building begins shortly after arrival; so the birds need to be in optimum condition before departure from over-wintering areas. Available nutrition immediately preceding breeding season is imperative to hatching success. After natural vegetation and/or flooded crops have died off on our freshwater reservoirs, we need to pick up the slack by providing whole kernel corn or milo in shoreline spinners. A smart duck hunter will feed well after the hunting season has closed if he wants healthy numbers to return next fall. Even old market gunners knew that waterfowl returned first to the location they were fed last.
Waterfowl need to be feed en route back to nesting grounds.
Songbird communities- are benefited by properties managed for game. Offering wild bird mix year-round in respective feeders will ensure reliable nutrition in unfavorable local conditions; if they don’t need it, they won’t use it. Don’t fall victim to outdated propaganda that feeding birds after winter can compromise their well-being.
Quail and songbirds share habitat/food sources.
In conclusion, we should recognize the critical importance of supplemental feed for wildlife in late winter/early spring. This is no time to stop or decrease feeders, but instead is a time to expand feeding programs. I view late winter feeding as a great opportunity to attract wildlife from adjacent property owners who quit feeding.
We now have super nutrition in affordable wildlife feeds, so take advantage of the technology—feed them and they will come (and stay).
Wildlife at Large: Don't Stop Now