By Diane Kennedy, for Let’s Talk Plants! April 2022.
With the best of intentions, many people who love the natural world can also be doing it the most harm. There are homeowners who started feeding raccoons dog kibble, and once all the raccoons in the neighborhood began coming, would purchase more kibble. They end up buying huge bags of the cheapest dog food and dump it outside for a wildlife feast day, believing that if they stopped the animals would starve. Unfortunately, dog food is chemically formulated for dogs, not raccoons or other animals, and the cheap stuff is loaded with preservatives and fillers that could give dogs cancer, kidney issues, dermatitis and other ailments. The wild animals will take a free meal even if it isn’t good for them because they otherwise spend a lot of energy looking for food. They then become ill and because you don’t see them, you don’t notice. Their natural diet is far healthier for them and keeps their population in check. Attracting wild animals close to human habitation is an invitation for disaster, and this is how coyotes, raccoons and opossums end up biting humans or pets.
Another big problem is that bird feeders and baths are often refilled but not cleaned. Birds step in poop and easily communicate diseases which end in painful deaths. Finch Eye Disease, or Avian conjunctivitis, is one such bacterial infection that isn’t limited to finches, nor is Avian Pox. To prevent their spread, allow feeders to empty twice a week, scrub the feeders and then soak in a bleach solution. Allow to completely dry before refilling. Hummingbird nectar feeders can grow Aspergillosis, a type of mold which then affects hummingbird tongues. They can develop Candidiasis, a fungal tongue infection that is painful and fatal. Again, filling feeders with only enough 1-to-4-part sugar to water solution to last a few days and then scrubbing and bleaching the feeders will help prevent disease spread.
Loving Monarch butterflies to death is quite common. Caring people take larvae inside to raise them in protection, and when hatched, release them outside. Unfortunately, the butterflies need to identify their location immediately or they become disoriented and can fail to migrate. A larger worry though is the overgrowth of a parasite which normally stays under control on Monarchs. Indoor growing conditions, purchasing cocoons from a warehouse, and especially the growing of tropical (the orange and yellow kind) milkweed which doesn’t go dormant, all allow the parasite to overpopulate and results in deformed hatchlings. Tropical milkweed, as pretty and easy to grow as it is, can also overwinter a protozoan pathogen called Ophryocystis elektroscirrha which will infect the incoming Monarchs the next spring. If you grow tropical milkweed you need to cut it to the ground in late fall, and it will regrow in the spring.
The best thing to do for all of these problems, of course, is to provide native food, water and shelter for the animals. Plant native milkweeds that will go dormant in the winter and therefore not overwinter disease or parasites. Fill your garden with plants that put on tasty seeds, have long tubular flowers for hummingbirds, and then allow seedheads to remain standing through until spring. Keeping a water supply that is at ground level for animals and filled preferably with sand or mud along with rainwater, is the best thing that you can do for wildlife. Even a small pond in an aluminum trough filled with water from your rain barrels and some aquatic plants will benefit many species of animals and insects without harming them.
We love to watch nature and many of us sincerely want to help animals survive, but we can’t love them to death. We can’t put human needs on wild animals. Permaculture design includes a native zone in every landscape. The kindest action is to provide animals with wildlife corridors and native plants and set up a wildlife camera to enjoy the show.