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    Saturday, January 28, 2023

    As winter lingers, let animals fend for themselves

    This winter weather - prolonged cold with deep snow and ice - is hard on wild animals. Wading birds, like great blue heron, can't find fish through the ice and snow in frozen marshes and coastal waters. It's hard for deer, coyote, fox and others to find and access food - plant or animal. Even birds of prey - hawks and owls - have a hard time hunting small rodents underneath the crust of ice and snow. It's why we are seeing wild animals in areas where they don't usually appear, and at times of day when they aren't usually active. They are hungry and looking for food in marginal areas where they may not typically venture.

    A coyote was photographed on Masons Island, where it is not unusual to see or hear them at night, but it is unusual to see a coyote during the day, and very unusual to see one climbing a tree and crawling inside the hollowed out stump searching for food, as this one was. The coyote must have smelled something edible - perhaps it was a mouse or even just a squirrel's stash of nuts - but it was determined to get what was inside that stump. Coyotes are opportunistic feeders, and will eat what they can find, plant or animal, dead or alive.

    An immature red-shouldered hawk now in the care of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center was found, weak and emaciated, outside one of the bird enclosures at the center. Our guess is he was hoping to catch the peregrine falcon inside the enclosure, and then was simply too weak to fly off. We have him, and a similarly weakened red-tailed hawk that was brought to us, living here while we fatten them up with mice before releasing them when it warms up a bit.

    But the difficulties that birds and animals are facing right now does not mean you should feed these wild animals. Animals can lose their fear of people. If they become too comfortable in residential neighborhoods, they can become a nuisance, or a safety risk (becoming more aggressive), including the transmission of diseases like rabies.

    Feeding wild bird seed and suet to backyard birds is generally harmless. The best way to enjoy wildlife in your backyard is from a distance. Native trees, shrubs, and the protection of natural habitats help to create a wildlife-friendly backyard.

    As for waterfowl, the open water areas in otherwise frozen coves and inlets make shoreline bird watching the best right now! Large flocks of mergansers, golden-eye, buffleheads, pintail and more are easy to spot. But again, don't feed them. There is enough open water for them to survive.

    Human foods do not provide appropriate nutrition and may cause health problems. Even offering pellets and cracked corn can attract too many ducks, geese and gulls in one place, contributing to the spread of disease. While we empathize with them on cold winter days, they generally have access to the foods they need (seaweed, small fish, invertebrates), and can fly to open water areas.

    Feeding leftovers or even purchased grain to waterfowl destroys the natural balance. Introducing more sugar, fat and protein causes nutritional problems (increased parasites, bacterial infections, problems with feathers and waterproofing, and obesity).

    It is, after all, the cycle of life. A great blue heron, as beautiful and majestic as it is, if it cannot survive the winter it will become food for something else - coyote, fox, turkey vulture, even a bald eagle. It is survival of the fittest in the harshest of weather as we are experiencing now.

    Spring is coming.

    Maggie Jones is executive director of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in Mystic.

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