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Hand-Taming Wildlife: Don't feed the bears... or the deer or the skunks 

Don't feed the bears... or the deer or the skunks

click to enlarge natural_world-westernspottedskunk.jpg
There are a lot of people throughout Central Oregon who think it's cool to tame mule deer so they can pet them. That, Oh Best Beloved, is one of the dumbest things anyone can do.

Then there's the business of people baiting cougars by attracting deer to their back yards. That's equally as dumb. I know one guy near Sisters who feeds carrots to mule deer by hand. Some day either the deer will beat his head in or perhaps a cougar will decide man meat is better than deer meat.

Leave game animals to be just that, Dear Readers - "game." It's unlawful to "bait" deer during hunting season anyway and in my book it's just plain dumb to bait cougar at any time. But having said all that, there's the business of feeding birds and our little Mountain Chickadee is trusting enough that it is often "tamed" and will come down to a human finger in hopes of finding a sunflower seed.

The gray jay - also known as camp robber - is another bird that quickly becomes trusting with people. Many a deer and elk hunter has found this bold jay will come to the hand for a choice piece of bacon or delicious backstrap cooked in butter.

The other day, I received a lovely note from Miriam Lipsitz, one of my best friends in the bird business. Miriam and her pal, Rachel Cornforth, have been caring for several bluebird nesting boxes. Miriam recently called my attention to a book I read years ago and unfortunately allowed to drift from my memory: Hand-Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder by Alfred G. Martin. Miriam decided to put Mr. Martin to the test and, in her words, it went like this...

"Taking many of his suggestions to heart last week, I filled one of my pockets with peanuts and the other pocket with raisins and pulled up a chair in my front yard and spent the entire day reading his book.

"The family of Steller's jays, which fledged some weeks ago, was still hanging around our yard. Over a period of days I had been teaching them to come to a new place where I set out a large shallow saucer of water and called them with a silly voice to come to the handful of peanuts I set out next to the saucer. I wanted them to know this call meant, 'Come and get your peanuts.'The jays keep their eyes on me no matter where they are in the vicinity and they come quickly for the peanuts.[But] I ran out of patience that dayforthe next stepsof Mr. Martin's instructions."

Miriam then finished out her day observing what many of the bird-feeding public has seen and enjoyed - male hummingbirds conducting their territorial squabbles.

"But what I did the rest of this day was park my chair under the two hummingbird feeders and read.I knew that there is one male Rufous hummer that has been guarding the two feeders as his territory all summer, but I had never watched him closely like I did this day.

And there you have, in a nutshell, why we humans feed wildlife - to get to know them better, while at the same time enjoy that one-on-one closeness with a wild animal. That's what some people are looking for when they feed deer, but it's not a good idea to try it with something large and capable of causing so much damage, both to them and to you.

But let me tell you what happens if you try to hand feed a skunk. Back in the '50's, I was dumb enough to try just that while living with Dean and Lily Hollinshead on what is now a public garden and Bend Parks property along (George A.) Jones Road.

Dean had a good-sized dairy on his horse ranch in those days and was milking some very productive Holsteins. They also had a hired hand to do the milking, care for the chickens, collect the eggs, take care of the horses and change water. One day, Dean and Lily went off on a tail ride and the hired man quit. That left yours truly to do the milking, care for the chickens, etc.

In those days, I was working for Bill Miller in his pumice mines west of Bend and got back home in the late afternoon. While gathering the eggs one evening I literally bumped into a spotted skunk that was also gathering eggs. Spotted skunks are unlike their larger cousin, the striped skunk, who shoot first and ask questions later. They're more genteel and hold fire. (They probably don't like the stink either.)

I got the hairy idea to pet that little skunk on my birthday by using eggs for bait. To accomplish that, I made it a point to arrive at the hen house before it did, set up a lawn chair near the laying boxes, put a freshly cracked egg in a dish near the chair and read a book aloud. It took over a month, but on March 27 of that year I had the pleasure of actually petting a wild skunk.

What happened after that can be found in my book, Tales from a Northwest Naturalist. If you can't find one in a book store to purchase, I've got a few left. Drop me a line and I'll get one to you. In the meantime, please stop feeding deer and stick to birds.

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