Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Tips for Caring for Wildlife

Pet Column for the week of November 5, 2007

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Sarah Dowling
Information Specialist

With the unpredictable weather of an Illinois autumn, it seems that Mother Nature has decided that winter weather will soon be arriving. As the temperatures drop, the wildlife in the Midwest has begun to prepare for the hardships of winter.

If you are like me and you are used to feeding and providing shelter for wildlife during the winter months, the arrival of winter weather means that you may desire to step up your efforts to support and care for our wild backyard guests. Dr. Julia Whittington, veterinarian and director of the University of Illinois Wildlife Medical Clinic in Urbana, Ill., explains that although providing supplemental food and cover may be beneficial to wildlife, there are some factors to consider before attracting wild animals to your yard.

Bird feeders are a popular way to attract and support wildlife in your own backyard. During the winter, birds will become dependent upon a feeder as a source of food. Once you begin using a bird feeder, be sure to keep it full, especially during heavy snow cover. If this source suddenly becomes unavailable, birds expend valuable energy trying to find natural food sources.

To prevent the spread of disease, clean your bird feeders thoroughly and regularly. Remove organic debris, food, and bird droppings, wash the feeder with hot soapy water, and rinse it well.

Providing a variety of foliage is another way to help wildlife survive the winter. Different animals use different environments for shelter, so layering your landscape by providing plants at varying heights can attract and provide shelter for a wide variety of wildlife. For example, squirrels are comfortable in tall trees, while rabbits prefer cover under shrubs and in tall grasses. Leaving ground cover in place, such as fallen branches or leaf piles, may also be beneficial to some species of birds and small mammals. These "shelters" offer valuable nesting and foraging areas that are otherwise buried under snow in the winter months.

Some animals may attempt to take advantage of your hospitality by entering your home or eating your garbage. Dr. Whittington advises, "To prevent unwanted guests, winterize your home by repairing torn screens, placing mesh or screen over the chimney and window wells, and sealing other entryways that allow access to your home or garage. Keep food items and garbage in animal-proof containers so it does not lure animals. Avoid leaving food outside for your pets, as contact with wild animals may spread disease to your pets."

Winter is an excellent time to view wildlife in their natural setting, from Northern cardinals and cottontail rabbits to great-horned owls and bobcats. Providing food and cover in your yard can attract wild animals for your enjoyment, while keeping them at an appropriate distance.

Your efforts during the cold weather months can provide a great deal of assistance to our native wildlife species; however the hardships of winter can still prove to be too much for some animals. The Wildlife Medical Clinic can provide assistance to sick and injured wildlife, with the exception of bats and skunks, and can be reached by calling 217/244-1195. If you should come across an animal that appears to need medical assistance make sure to provide as much information about the animal as possible when calling so that a clinic staff member can accurately advise you on what action to take based on the situation. If the animal can be safely secured and transported, the Small Animal Clinic will receive these patients 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

For more information about the Wildlife Medical Clinic and wildlife in general, please visit the Web site of the Wildlife Medical Clinic at