To Feed or Not to Feed?

The East has faced a harsh winter, and all the wildlife is struggling to fill their bellies—but don’t get tempted to throw them a bone.

by Jessica Walliser

To Feed or Not to Feed? - Photo by Jessica Walliser (

It’s been a long, cold winter here in the East—and not just for the humans but for all the living creatures. Wild birds have been emptying our feeders and suet cages on a daily basis, and our chickens have been enjoying a breakfast of hot oatmeal every morning. Even the squirrels are begging for a few extra peanuts!

The other creatures that are surely struggling are the deer. It’s been a bit of a challenge keeping them out of the garden this winter. They’ve been hungry and sampling trees and shrubs normally left untouched. I’m struggling because I know there are far more deer than our forests can sustain. Naturally culling the herd, as a winter like this will do, is part of the natural cycle of things, but I don’t like knowing that something is starving to death.

Like many gardeners, I’ve covered my evergreen shrubs with plastic netting to keep the deer from browsing the branches, but I was too late in getting to some of the deciduous trees and shrubs before the deer managed to nibble off all the buds. I probably won’t get many blueberries this year and my fringe tree won’t bloom because the stem tips and buds are all gone. The deer also nibbled away all of the apple trees’ fruiting spurs that were within reach. They haven’t resorted to sampling the boxwoods yet (it seems to be one of their least favorites around here), but I suspect it won’t be long until they do, especially if the boxwoods continue to be the only unfenced plants sticking out of the snow.

I was at the feed store yesterday and actually considered buying some dried corn for the deer. I told myself that if I put it outside the back gate, it would discourage them from jumping the fence and dining on more of my trees and shrubs. But I didn’t buy the corn because it’s a risk I don’t want to take. 

I don’t want to encourage the deer to come to my yard any more than they already do. Plus, I know that, in the summer, when they hop the fence and chow down on my vegetable garden, I won’t feel so bad for them. When that doe comes back and eats all my container plantings to the nub, I will be cursing instead of pitying her. When the six-point buck that regularly stalks my yard rubs the bark off my new magnolia tree again next fall, I will remember standing in the feed store in the dead of winter, considering feeding them on purpose, and I’ll laugh at myself for even having such a silly thought.

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But for now, I can’t help but think about the fawn growing inside the ragged-looking doe that’s sniffing at my boxwoods and wonder what nature has in store for the little guy. It’s been a tough winter out there. For everyone.

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