OHIO VALLEY — As temperatures drop and snow falls on the Ohio Valley, many people are wondering how animals survive the harsh conditions and debate whether they should feed them.
According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, wildlife have adapted and learned to cope with the changing seasonal temperatures. Some grow thick coats and consume extra food to keep them warm. Other animals hibernate and some migrate.
When an animal hibernates, its heart rate, body temperature and other life processes slow down, putting them into a kind of a “deep sleep.” Groundhogs are one of Ohio’s true hibernators, spending as long as five months in this state. Their body temperature lowers by almost half and their heart rate slows from 160 to four beats per minute.
Animals such as skunks, raccoons, chipmunks and opossums may to go into a temporary hibernation during extremely cold periods and sleep for about five days. During this time they find shelter in trees, logs, beneath rocks or underground.
Whether an animal hibernates or remains active, body fat is an important factor in an animal’s winter survival. Birds and mammals consume extra food throughout the fall when supplies are plentiful, building up body fat. When food is scarce, their bodies draw energy from fat reserves.
Many of Ohio’s birds are migratory, and “go south” for the winter. For non-migratory birds such as cardinals and others who decide to stay, those few ounces of fat they have stored are not enough to get them through a harsh winter; their survival depends on finding food such as seeds and fruit.
The ODNR advises, with the exception of feeding songbirds, that putting out food for wildlife can hurt more than help for several reasons: The unnatural gathering of multiple species to one food source can promote the spread of disease, waterfowl are vulnerable to outbreaks of botulism when artificially fed and animals can become dependent, putting them at risk when the food source is no longer provided.
Instead, the ODNR recommends making your outdoors wildlife-friendly by planting trees that yield nuts and berries, and evergreen trees and shrubs to give animals protection from wind and rain.
Leaving some areas of brush and thick patches of briers provide cover for small animals. Food such as corn, sorghum and millet are good sources of energy, and ODNR recommends planting these foods in areas the animals can naturally forage.
Another reason not to feed wild animals in your back yard is they will assume your newly planted spring vegetable and flower gardens were made just for them. Those cute little rabbits and deer that looked so hungry and helpless this winter will become pests the rest of the year; they cannot distinguish between the “free meal” you provided them with in the winter and your tender spring plants that are off limits.
Once Canada geese find a food source in your yard, they often decide to stay permanently — and they can be quite noisy and messy. Starlings are another “problem bird” if encouraged by winter feeding.
As the snow falls and people are comfortable and warm in their homes, remember the wild animals and birds are much better equipped to withstand winter conditions than most humans. They are in their natural environment and well-intended efforts may have negative consequences for their well-being.
Instead, take a few moments to enjoy the natural beauty of the Ohio Valley — and the animals and birds that inhabit the region.
Contact Lorna Hart at 740-992-2155 Ext. 2551.