Habitat & Conservation  |  01/19/2023

During Harsh Winters, the Urge to Feed Wildlife Identifies a Habitat Issue


Feeding is a well-intentioned activity with deadly consequences

As luck would have it late last week, Friday the 13th (yes, the unlucky calendar date) was accompanied by a phone call regarding a wildlife feeding nightmare in southwest Minnesota.
“Local residents are trying to help our pheasant population survive the winter by dumping milk pails of cracked corn on the roadsides,” explained a county snowplow driver and diehard pheasant hunter. “Their actions are decimating wildlife along my 30-mile route, particularly pheasants, which are being hit by the plow or buried with heavy wet snow in the ditch. Folks need to leave them alone – the birds already survived major blizzard events only to perish from good intentions.”
The harsh winter we are experiencing in the northern states has brought a flurry of questions across the desk of PF and QF regarding the topic of winter feeding. So, where does The Habitat Organization stand on the issue? Should you go out and begin tossing grain on the roadsides with the best intentions? The answer is NO.
“Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever do not recommend supplemental feeding efforts for a variety of reasons,” said Ron Leathers, the organization’s Chief Conservation Officer. “Feeding pulls birds out of quality thermal cover, depleting energy reserves and adding to freezing mortality. Additionally, this practice can quickly turn into a focal point for predation, and the threat of disease (avian flu and other risks) is a major concern.”
Here's another point worth mentioning: In states where feeding restrictions are in place due to chronic wasting disease in deer, it’s considered an illegal activity – something our organization would never promote. 
“More than anything, feeding is reactionary to the winter,” continued Leathers. “The best thing we can do as hunters, conservationists, and landowners is plan for the worst and hope for the best by designing quality winter habitat for pheasants and other wildlife to weather the storm.”
It’s natural for hunters and land managers to worry about upland birds starving when the snow begins to stack up, but starvation during inclement weather is EXTREMELY RARE if adequate winter habitat is available. Here’s another nugget of information you might find interesting: Pheasants can survive up to two weeks, even if all food sources are covered by deep snow and/or ice. Without any available food, a January rooster can survive 19 days and hens 16 days (Ken Solomon, wildlife biologist; A Year in the Life of a Pheasant). Taking into account the resourcefulness of pheasants as well as the availability of native food sources, freezing mortality is much more likely than starvation without good winter habitat.
Following three easy winters in a row, upland birds have boomed to some degree in various regions of the country.Unfortunately, 2023 is not off to a great start in the northern range, but the harsh reality is that our favorite upland birds are designed with high turnover rates. We can, however, improve their situation each year with long-term habitat planning.
Want help designing a quality winter habitat project or food/cover plot for the future? Setup a site visit with our biologist team or visit the PF & QF Habitat Store!

Jared Wiklund serves as the Public Relations Manager for Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever on a national scale, as well as is the current secretary of Washington County Pheasants Forever. A diehard upland bird hunter, he can be found following his Labrador retriever and English pointer throughout the fall while pursuing pheasants, quail, grouse, and waterfowl.