Wildlife food

Food is an important component of wildlife habitat; after all, who doesn’t like to eat? The animal diets are driven by the quantity and quality of food available and vary throughout the year.

There are four categories of wildlife food: preferred — the animal will eat this first given the opportunity; staple — the animal eats this on a regular basis; emergency — eaten to fulfill short term nutritional needs; and stuffers — eaten when there is nothing else to eat. For example, for the turkey, the staple of an adult bird may be seeds and nuts, but it will seek out insects during mating season when its protein requirements are more acute. If nothing else is available the turkey may resort to eating twigs, leaves or other plant material in the winter when times are lean.

The quantity and quality of food is important for wildlife. Quantity is how much food is available while quality indicates how nutritious the food is. If the quantity of food is lacking, the animal may die of starvation, while a lack of quality may result in malnutrition. A malnourished animal may be lethargic, more prone to disease, and its reproductive rate may be diminished. A poorly nourished female deer may have fewer offspring and produce less milk to nourish the young deer; this will result in greater infant mortality. Conversely, a well nourished animal is more energetic, less prone to diseases, more able to elude predators, and produces more offspring.

Credit: wikimedia.org - Muffet

Plant material available for consumption is often divided into hard or soft mast categories. Hard mast consists of hardshelled seeds such as acorns, walnut, hickory or beech nuts etc. Most of these nuts develop in the fall and are high in fats, carbohydrates, and protein. This hard mast is a very important source of winter nutrition for animals as it provides the Wildlife food (courtesy photo) energy needed to store fat, grow fur or feathers that will help the animal survive the approaching winter months. Soft mast are fleshy, perishable seeds and vegetation like black berries, paw paw, samaras, serviceberries etc. This soft mast is normally high in sugars, vitamins, and carbohydrates. This material is employed when the animal is active in the summer, mating, or in the process of migrating.

Native wildlife have evolved for thousands of years with indigenous plant communities; native plants offer the best sources of food and nutrition for local wildlife. Most native communities also display species diversity; this is important because more species of plants and animals means more sources of food. The dietary interaction of all the plants, animals, and external factors in an area can be classified as the food web for that area. A diverse community such as a healthy oak forest may contain, white, red, chestnut, black and scarlet oaks among others. Having this diversity is important since acorn production is cyclic in oaks. As such, if in a given year the red and white oaks are not producing acorns, perhaps the black and scarlet are having fair years but the chestnut oak is having a bumper crop. The net result is that there are some acorns available for wildlife.

Invasive plants and animals can disrupt the food web causing a reduction in food quantity and quality. These invasives can outcompete native food sources, change soil chemistry, and make the community more prone to catastrophic events like wildfires or ice damage etc. In the example of the oak forest, if the community was attacked by an invasive insect like gypsy moth, it might result in oak mortality, reducing the hard mast potential of the forest. This reduction of acorn production is likely to impact over 100 species of animals that consume acorns. This degradation of the oak forest also impacts the complex food web of these communities, and it is now believed that impacts to oak habitats are resulting in the decline of nearly 40 species of birds including the golden winged warbler, golden checked warbler, wood thrush, pee wee, and ovenbird.

Likewise, if an invasive plant such as barberry becomes established, it may overrun the understory reducing the amount and diversity of native food sources for local wildlife populations. Providing desirable food for animals means reducing invasive exotic species, maintaining diversity, and perhaps supplementing the food choices with crops grown especially for wildlife also known as food plots. The more food available, the more wildlife will be found in a given location.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature Note for 1/12/2014