Feeding Wildlife

Food is one important element in wildlife habitat. But it's not the only element.  Providing food sources is only one step in attracting wildlife and before you start to plant or supplement food, think about what other resources your land is offering wildlife.  Is there shelter like shrubby cover or flowers and grass? Is there water? Is it safe?  If you can say yes to these questions, you're ready to start thinking about food to attract more wildlife.  If the answer was no, focus on the habitat first, then provide the food.  Check out our pages for farmers or homeowners for more information about habitat.  

Focus on Plants First

The best way to feed wildlife is to allow nature to do it.  By this, we mean planting things that can consistently provide quality food sources year after year, like perennial flowers, grasses, shrubs and vines.  Plants that produce seeds, fruits, or nuts can provide high-quality food through the year and year-after-year.  Check out our landscaping page for more information on planting quality wildlife habitat in your backyard.  

Providing Supplemental Food

If you want to concentrate wildlife or attract a wider variety of wildlife, you may be able to provide supplemental food, such as bird feeders. We describe some considerations to make when choosing foods in our article on Attracting Birds to Your Yard. Also consider the best practices and understand the risks outlined here below.

bird feeder in winter


Tips and tricks for winter bird feeding

This video from Iowa Outdoors covers the elements of winter bird feeding with Iowa State University Ornithologist Dr. Steve Dinsmore. 

Screenshot of iowa winter bird food video


Risks with feeding and recommendations for safe feeding practices

Artificial feeding with feeders or bait piles artificially concentrates wildlife and increases the risk of disease transmission. There is substantial concern among wildlife biologists about the risks of transmitting Chronic Wasting Disease in white-tailed deer in some parts of the state and country by concentrating deer on artificial food or mineral sources.  Therefore, we recommend never feeding deer or providing mineral supplementation, and removing bait intended for other animals, such as bird feeders, when deer begin to congregate around them.

Moldy grains, like corn or other seeds, can build up toxins and become problematic for wildlife feeding on them.  Read this fact sheet from Oklahoma State on the issue and be sure to keep your food dry and free of mold. A build-up of these toxins in the food could do more harm than good for wildlife feeding extensively on the supplemental food.  

Attracting and concentrating wildlife at an artificial food sources (like a food plot or feeder) can make for 'easy pickings' for predators.  Here again, if the wildlife feeding at your feeders are at increased risk for predation, the feeders may be doing more harm than good so make sure you provide other habitat or escape cover around the feeders for wildlife to escape to when a predator shows up.

Be sure the food you are offering is high-quality and digestible.  Studies on white-tailed deer in northern Great Lakes states have shown that deer can die of starvation with stomachs full of alfalfa hay in the middle of winter. In this case, the food provided was not digestible by the deer because they were accustomed to a different diet.  Although this is an extreme case, it's important to remember the different needs of wildlife through the year and to focus on providing the right foods.  In general, animals need high-protein foods during the spring and summer breeding seasons and need fatty foods during the cold fall and winter months.

Follow these simple tips to make sure you're doing the right thing for wildlife visiting your feeders.

  • Plant a diversity of food-producing plants in addition to feeding to provide cover and reliable annual food sources.
  • Clean any feeders that animals come in direct contact with to reduce disease transmission.
  • Keep foods dry and discard any moist, moldy foods.
  • Provide food in close proximity to other resources, like shrubby cover, to protect feeding wildlife from predators and inclement weather.
  • Provide the right types of foods during the right time of year.  For birds, focus on seeds and suet during fall and winter and sugar water and fruits during spring and summer.
    • You can easily make your own hummingbird sugar water; mix four parts water to one part table sugar and boil the solution to eradicate any mold or bacteria.
  • Never feed white-tailed deer to avoid risks of transmitting diseases like Chronic Wasting Disease.

Choosing the right foods for feeders

Many different food and feeder types are available and you can expect to see different species of birds on different types of feeders or throughout the year. Here's a table that highlights the main species of birds you may expect to see on the best types of food to offer. Avoid common bird food fillers like sorghum, wheat, or corn in favors of these offerings. Some of the best foods may be hiding in plain sight in your pantry like old peanut butter or a boiled solution of 4-parts water 1-part sugar.

table of bird foods

Add water too

A diversity of birds can be attracted to a cool, clean water source. Be sure to keep it moving or fresh to avoid stagnant pools where mosquitoes may breed. Artificial sources of fresh water like bird baths or fountains are a nice accent to landscapes or really creative homeowners could build small ponds, rain gardens, or wetlands in the backyard to provide natural vegetation and water sources.