Students will discover the possible negative effects of feeding wildlife in winter.
Students participate in a classroom simulation of winter feeding conditions.
three or four boxes of different unsweetened cereals; one box of sweetened or sugar-coated cereal; four empty ice cream containers; a buzzer or bell; and a watch with seconds indicated
Feeding wildlife has become a popular winter activity in many areas. It’s a great way of teaching youngsters to appreciate nature and to develop a responsible attitude toward wild things. As long as a few simple guidelines are followed, feeding creatures in winter will benefit young people just as much as it benefits wildlife.
Those who feed wildlife (usually birds) must be careful not to attract uninvited guests, such as raccoons or rats. For that reason, it’s important to keep feeding stations tidy and placed out of reach of determined intruders. Some people encourage raccoons so they can see these wild animals up close. (And, let’s face it, these furry bandits are entertaining and cute!) However, feeding them can cause a lot of trouble. Raccoons that get used to human handouts become very bold. Raccoons are aggressive, especially when cornered, and may attack household pets. They also can carry numerous parasites and diseases, such as rabies, which can be passed on to humans and pets. They will snoop in garages, sheds, or even houses in search of more treats. If the people feeding them lose interest or move away, the raccoons will scramble elsewhere for handouts by raiding garbage cans and pet food dishes.
Feeding raccoons (either accidentally or on purpose) can actually encourage an abnormally high raccoon population. When they mature, young raccoons are usually driven away by their mothers. However, if there is a dependable food supply in the neighbourhood, mothers may allow the young to remain. The abundant supply of food may also prompt the females to produce bigger litters.
Once a bird feeding station becomes popular, it should be maintained until late spring. By late winter, birds will have depleted their natural food supplies and become dependent on feeding stations. Every winter, bird species are seen in areas that are generally too cold for them. This may be an indicator that they have chosen to rely on food supplied by humans, rather than migrate south.
Sometimes people put out hay for wintering deer. Although this action is meant well, it can actually be harmful to deer. Deer develop specialized bacteria to help them digest their tough winter diet of twigs and buds. Consequently, they aren’t equipped to digest the hay properly.
NOTE: This simulation actually represents a time span of several years, since a population of animals will not increase over one winter unless new animals move into the territory.
- Place an assortment of the unsweetened cereals in each of the four ice cream containers, for a total of six pieces in each container.
- Appoint four students to be responsible for replenishing the food supplies to their original quantities after each round (after three bells).
- Select eight students to represent an animal population (they may be any wildlife species that responds to feeding programs, such as birds, raccoons, and deer). Explain that the students represent animals in winter, and that the unsweetened cereals represent the natural foods found in their habitat. The students may eat any cereal they wish but, as supplies become low, they may not be able to choose their “favourite” food.
- The students are to eat one, and only one, piece of cereal each time they hear the bell. Ring the bell three times at 10-second intervals. After the third bell, replenish the food supply and select more students to join the group. Play another round. When the food is gone, the system cannot support any more animals. If an animal can’t find food, it starves and must take a seat.
- At times, instruct one of the four food replenishers to put in extra food into containers (to encourage survival so that the population will continue to grow) or to put in fewer pieces (to simulate a cause for a die-off). This activity represents how populations of deer and other species naturally fluctuate depending on the availability of food.
- Once the population has stabilized (the class should have a good idea about how many “animals” may exist under these feeding conditions – a number close to the original eight students), introduce a container of sweetened cereal. This cereal represents a tasty, abundant, source of food supplied by humans during winter when food is scarce. Play several more rounds. The animal population, bolstered by both the new food and the supply of natural food, is allowed to grow quickly.
- Remove the sweetened cereal to force the animals to survive only on natural foods. The number of animals now over whelms the food supply and many of them die. The animals have three choices: they can move, compete for what little food is left, or starve. Removing the sugar-coated cereal represents the effects on wildlife when humans discontinue winter feeding programs.
- Discuss how the simulation explores the problems that may occur when people feed wild animals in winter.
- Have students survey the number of families in their area that are involved in winter feeding programs and distribute the flyers (see evaluation section below) to them.
- Have students research whether wintering deer are being fed in their area, whether by individuals, by local fish and game clubs, or by the provincial or territorial department of natural resources ministry.
- Students can research the problem of bears foraging at public dumps and becoming accustomed to human scent.
- Have students: Design a one-page, illustrated flyer to inform the community of the consequences of winter feeding.
- Have students: Write a letter to the editor of the local paper or submit an article explaining the pros and cons of winter feeding.
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