Risks around administering food and water to native wildlife after a natural disaster

After experiencing a catastrophic natural disaster like the bushfire season of 2020, we naturally assume that putting out food and water sources for our native wildlife is a required action to assist in the environments healing. What many don’t realise, is that while appropriate in extreme circumstances, at other times these food and water sources can be harmful to our wildlife and are often not recommended.

Well intentioned members of the public that try to assist wildlife in the longer term may in fact be jeopardising the health and wellbeing of our wildlife, and therefore the recovery of populations and habitats after a natural disaster. In general, across the Blue Mountains region there is currently no need for additional food and water sources due to the continuing rainfall and vegetation regrowth that has occurred.

As part of our initial response immediately after the bushfires when continuing drought, heat stress, dehydration and starvation were all very real risks, the Science for Wildlife team strategically installed food and water stations for native animals around the Blue Mountains area. Before installing any of these stations, consultation with veterinarians and land managers was completed as well as a thorough assessment of a range of variables including location and access, wildlife known to the area and which threatened species would be targeted, materials that were suitable for safe deployment, the need for maintenance, monitoring and just as importantly, the removal process. Knowing when to stop helping is just as important as knowing when to start.

There is a high level of consideration and planning required to install food and water stations, which is why it’s so important for members of the public to be aware of the risks involved in leaving out food and water sources for native wildlife.

The fires saw all food removed in some areas, and these were the extreme conditions under which we supplemented food for wildlife. (Photo Credit Marty Taube)

The risks surrounding food and water supplies for wildlife

Below are a few risks associated with feeding free-living wildlife after a natural disaster:

Inappropriate food that can cause harm

Recommendations from wildlife organisations infer that offering food to wildlife can be dangerous and potentially harmful, and should be avoided unless completely necessary. Some foods can result in illness, disease or death to our native wildlife. When assisting free-living wildlife, the preference would be to offer clean fresh water rather than food.

Wildlife Health Australia says:

“The general guiding principle when providing food and water for free-living wildlife is “FIRST, DO NOT HARM”. If you are not sure, it is better not to offer food, and to concentrate only on fresh water. Overfeeding can be fatal. For example, food that is offered to one species in small amounts may be harmful to another.”

We used two different types of water stations, and both had sticks or mesh in the bowls so small animals could crawl out if they fell in.

When S4W deployed resources after the fires, we avoided food that could cause harm and deployed two types of ground pellets, one each for macropods and for wombats. This ensured the food sources available weren’t high in sugars, fats or salt and would not cause health problems in other species. Since we deployed food in remote areas and could only visit once per week, this was an important consideration in case, for example, sweet food put out for gliders ended up on the ground where it could harm macropods. 

Dependence of young animals on artificial food and water sources

Another consideration when leaving food and water for native wildlife is that some animals, usually the younger animals, may become dependent on this food source for survival, and will not be able to survive once it has been removed.

Younger animals have less experience with consistency of diet and food sources and will therefore be drawn towards the easiest and most accessible option. They are the most vulnerable of the species and won’t be able to defend themselves when confronted by predators who may also be utilising the food and water source.

This dependence also results in the younger animals not developing necessary skills to hunt and forage for natural sources of food on their own.

Disease transmission and increased aggression

Additional food and water sources that aren’t naturally occurring in the environment can create artificial grouping of species in areas where they otherwise wouldn’t be located in such dense numbers. This can lead to a few issues including increased disease transmission within species, and between different species who are congregating at the food source.

This can also lead to increased aggression between animals who are asserting dominance and becoming territorial around the food source. Threatened species are then put in a precarious position, with larger or “bossier” animals taking priority, leading to fights and injuries amongst the wildlife.

What to do if you have native animals that require assistance

The best course of action when in doubt, is to get in contact with a reputable wildlife organisation to ask for advice in your specific circumstances. These organisations will know the area and species well, and will be able to guide your choices on whether food and water is appropriate to be left out, and how to care for any native wildlife if they do require assistance.

Wildlife Health Australia says:

“Seek guidance from relevant authorities prior to providing any food to wildlife after natural disasters (particularly for threatened species) as specific strategies including regulated feeding programs may already be in place”.

If you do ultimately decide it is necessary to provide food and water, make sure it is kept clean, updated regularly and is offered in appropriate containers that don’t pose any risks of drowning or injuries to the animals. 

For further information and links to other helpful articles, visit the Wildlife Health Australia website here.

To learn more about Science for Wildlife, visit our website here.