Food is one important element in wildlife habitat. But it's not the only element. Providing food sources is only one step in attracting wildlife and before you start to plant or supplement food, think about what other resources your land is offering wildlife. Is there shelter like shrubby cover or flowers and grass? Is there water? Is it safe? If you can say yes to these questions, you're ready to start thinking about food to attract more wildlife. If the answer was no, focus on the habitat first, then provide the food. Check out our pages for farmers or homeowners for more information about habitat.
Focus on Plants First
The best way to feed wildlife is to allow nature to do it. By this, we mean planting things that can consistently provide quality food sources year after year, like perennial flowers, grasses, shrubs and vines. Plants that produce seeds, fruits, or nuts can provide high-quality food through the year and year-after-year. Check out our landscaping page for more information on planting quality wildlife habitat in your backyard.
Providing Supplemental Food
If you want to concentrate wildlife or attract a wider variety of wildlife, you may be able to provide supplemental food, such as bird feeders. We describe some considerations to make when choosing foods in our article on Attracting Birds to Your Yard. You can get more tips and tricks from the article titled Bird feeding: tips for beginners and veterans. Also consider the best practices and understand the risks outlined here below.
Tips and tricks for winter bird feeding
This video from Iowa Outdoors covers the elements of winter bird feeding with Iowa State University Ornithologist Dr. Steve Dinsmore.
Risks with feeding and recommendations for safe feeding practices
Artificial feeding with feeders or bait piles artificially concentrates wildlife and increases the risk of disease transmission. Check out this video on research from Iowa State about disease transmission and birds to understand the risk and hear how to keep birds safe. There is substantial concern among wildlife biologists about the risks of transmitting Chronic Wasting Disease in white-tailed deer in some parts of the state and country by concentrating deer on artificial food or mineral sources. Therefore, we recommend never feeding deer or providing mineral supplementation, and removing bait intended for other animals, such as bird feeders, when deer begin to congregate around them.
Moldy grains, like corn or other seeds, can build up toxins and become problematic for wildlife feeding on them. Read this fact sheet from Oklahoma State on the issue and be sure to keep your food dry and free of mold. A build-up of these toxins in the food could do more harm than good for wildlife feeding extensively on the supplemental food.
Attracting and concentrating wildlife at an artificial food sources (like a food plot or feeder) can make for 'easy pickings' for predators. Here again, if the wildlife feeding at your feeders are at increased risk for predation, the feeders may be doing more harm than good so make sure you provide other habitat or escape cover around the feeders for wildlife to escape to when a predator shows up.
Be sure the food you are offering is high-quality and digestible. Studies on white-tailed deer in northern Great Lakes states have shown that deer can die of starvation with stomachs full of alfalfa hay in the middle of winter. In this case, the food provided was not digestible by the deer because they were accustomed to a different diet. Although this is an extreme case, it's important to remember the different needs of wildlife through the year and to focus on providing the right foods. In general, animals need high-protein foods during the spring and summer breeding seasons and need fatty foods during the cold fall and winter months.
Follow these simple tips to make sure you're doing the right thing for wildlife visiting your feeders.
- Plant a diversity of food-producing plants in addition to feeding to provide cover and reliable annual food sources.
- Clean any feeders that animals come in direct contact with to reduce disease transmission.
- Keep foods dry and discard any moist, moldy foods.
- Provide food in close proximity to other resources, like shrubby cover, to protect feeding wildlife from predators and inclement weather.
- Provide the right types of foods during the right time of year. For birds, focus on seeds and suet during fall and winter and sugar water and fruits during spring and summer.
- Never feed white-tailed deer to avoid risks of transmitting diseases like Chronic Wasting Disease.
Choosing the right foods for feeders
Many different food and feeder types are available and you can expect to see different species of birds on different types of feeders or throughout the year. Here's a table that highlights the main species of birds you may expect to see on the best types of food to offer. Avoid common bird food fillers like sorghum, wheat, or corn in favors of these offerings. Some of the best foods may be hiding in plain sight in your pantry like old peanut butter or a boiled solution of 4-parts water 1-part sugar.
Add water too
A diversity of birds can be attracted to a cool, clean water source. Be sure to keep it moving or fresh to avoid stagnant pools where mosquitoes may breed. Artificial sources of fresh water like bird baths or fountains are a nice accent to landscapes or really creative homeowners could build small ponds, rain gardens, or wetlands in the backyard to provide natural vegetation and water sources.
Iowa's pasture and hay ground, when managed appropriately, provides ideal habitat to mimic the historical expanses of grasslands that once covered the state. Wildlife species have different needs when it comes to grasslands, but generally they all benefit from diverse stands of native prairie vegetation that are not disturbed during their primary nesting season from May to early July.
Here's a few pointers and resources on ways to promote quality wildlife habitat in your pasture or hay ground.
Delay mowing to July 15th wherever possible, and ideally until August 1st. This allows sufficient time for birds to hatch their nests and for other young critters, like deer fawns, to be mobile enough to escape equipment in the fields.
When mowing earlier in the year consider these recommendations:
- Mow slowly and look ahead for wildlife that are slow to get away.
- Avoid mowing in the dark when birds are most likely to be on the nest and least likely to flush.
- Use a flushing bar (a bar in front of the mower, as wide as the deck, with dangling chains to encourage things to flush).
- Start cuttings from the middle of the field out, leaving some cover for wildlife along the field margins near woodlots, fence rows, or other natural areas.
Promote diversity in grazed systems
An ideal grazed system for wildlife is rich in plant species diversity as well as diversity of management treatments, like grazing, haying, and prescribed fire. Native warm season grasses like big bluestem, switchgrass and Indiangrass are generally more favorable for wildlife in grazed systems and can provide a strong forage base. The article Warm Season Grasses for Hay and Pasture describes common warm season grasses used for hay and pasture. Some conservation professionals and graziers have experimented with grazing native prairie vegetaiotn in Iowa, as outlined in the article "Grazing Native Plants in Iowa: Processes and Experiences". The University of Wisconsin has a nice article about creating bird habitat in rotational grazing systems.
Employ prescribed fire to promote diversity and forage quality
Using prescribed fire in concert with grazing can also be a highly effective means of increasing the quality of pasture for wildlife. Fire in Grazing Management: Patch-Burn Grazing is a detailed article that provides a summary of the patch-burn grazing method and results of research from southern Iowa. If you are interested in using prescribed fire on your property, Forestry Extension has put together a nice 5-part series on planning and implementing prescribed fire. You can download each article in the series with these links,
- Developing a Prescribed Fire Burn Plan: Elements & Considerations
- Considerations for Prescribed Burning: Tools and Safety Gear
- Considerations for Prescribed Burning: Timing a Prescribed Burn
- Smoke Management for Prescribed Burning: What to Consider
- Considerations for Prescribed Burning: Ignition Techniques
You can also visit the UKNOW YouTube Channel for a series of videos on how to safely conduct prescribed fire in Iowa.
The key to successful integration of productive crop or pasture ground and healthy wildlife populations is to find opportunity areas on your property to manage to promote wildlife.
These areas are often hiding in plain sight from the combine or tractor. They're in all corners of a typical section of working lands in Iowa, from wet spots to field edges or from forest edges to pasture ground. Places where production is low or management strategies could be altered to create or maintain wildlife habitat while maintaining or even increasing profitability.
This website is a starting point for producers to learn about where opportunity areas for wildlife conservation preside on their farms and learn what others are doing to bolster wildlife populations on their land.
Farm the Best, Conserve the Rest
Finding opportunity areas for wildlife conservation is predicated on a simple concept: farm the best, most productive ground, and conserve the rest. Here's a few areas on your farm you may find high potential for quality wildlife habitat.
Once you've identified these opportunity areas on your farm, work to promote diverse, natural vegetation like grasses, flowers, and shrubs to provide habitat for wildlife. If your opportunity areas are on working parts of your farm, like in hay fields or pastures, use the resources provided on this site and elsewhere to gain tips and tricks to maximize the utility of those working lands for wildlife while still meeting your production goals.
Finding places for perennial vegetation (and wildlife) in a row-crop landscape
Many opportunities exist to integrate wildlife habitat into ongoing management strategies on the farm. The challenge for wildlife conservation in the most intensively farmed landscapes is the absence of permanent, non-crop vegetation. The first step to increasing the suitability of a farmed landscape for wildlife is to find new ways to provide this perennial vegetation. Integrating perennial vegetation into management practices ongoing or desired on the farm is best way to achieve this goal. Prairie grasses are one common and important perennial vegetation type that can integrated into working landscapes as described in this article from ISU Extension and Outreach. Similarly, this detailed article on targeted conservation in Iowa's agricultural landscape is another great resource for finding places for conservation on working lands.
Pasture and hay fields, when managed appropriately, are ideal habitat that mimic the expansive grasslands that once covered Iowa. Check out our page about managing hay and pasture for wildlife to learn more.
Windbreaks or shelter belts in agricultural landscapes can be a great way to build wildlife habitat and yield additional benefits around the farm. We have an article on managing windbreaks for wildlife habitat, which can be used in combination with other articles on planning windbreaks and establishment, care, and maintenance of windbreaks written by specialists from ISU Extension and Outreach.
Another common opportunity area is with water quality management programs such as wetland restorations or buffer strips. In addition, check out the following articles about installing and maintaining buffer strips for surface and even subsurface (drain tile effluent) water quality.
- Riparian Buffer Systems
- Assessing the Need for a Riparian Management System
- Buffer Strip Design, Establishment, and Maintenance
- Maintenance of Riparian Buffers
- Cleaning Iowa's Waters with Saturated Buffers in Iowa Watersheds
Finally, there's plenty of 'odd areas' in Iowa's agricultural landscapes -- things like fence rows or old fields -- that offer real potential for habitat for everything from field mice to quail to deer. Here are some articles on managing these unique habitats in Iowa written by wildlife extension specialists at Iowa State.
Most wildlife biologists and hunters, like me, admittedly have less of a mainstream attitude toward weeds. Those of us who spend fall mornings behind bird dogs or summer days glassing butterflies look upon field edges and odd areas in a different light... Read more about Is Palmer Paranoia a Threat to Conservation?
On these cool spring days, it’s easy to forget the approaching hot, humid days in store for Iowans this summer. The Iowa State University Extension and Outreach wildlife program offers the following recommendations for the impending hot summer days: avoid the heat by spending less time on the mower.... Read more about Spend Less Time in the Heat this Summer – for the Birds
Conservation is ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number of people. This idea is credited to American forester Gifford Pinchot, but many have arrived at the same conclusion. Conservation is thus, a resource allocation challenge and among our many resources, land is the most finite.... Read more about Land Use Mismatches
Planting the seeds of conservation in Iowa
Nine species of bats are found regularly in Iowa’s fields and forests. All of these bat species are aerial insectivores, using their skilled echolocation to hone in on flying insects in forests, fields, and over water. Bats are thus an extremely important part of our ecosystems, helping control populations of problematic insects like beetles, including corn rootworm, and mosquitoes.
Iowa’s bats spend their summers in landscapes with trees generally near water, with some species preferring the interiors of forests and others prone to flying about city lights in search of food. Mothers raise their young in the foliage of trees, in or on buildings, around transportation infrastructure like bridges, in hollowed out trees, or in rock crevices. Any tight space close to good insect food sources near forest edges, openings, or waterways, invites bats. During winter when insect prey are no longer available, bats disappear from sight, with some species retreating deep into caves or abandoned mine shafts to hibernate, some taking shelter in attics or barns, and others leaving the state entirely to spend the winter in warmer southern climates. Many bats live alongside Iowans in every county, though they often go unnoticed because of their nocturnal lifestyle. That inconspicuous lifestyle is also the reason many Iowans don’t understand or appreciate bats or know the challenges their populations face.
Two of Iowa’s bats species are listed on the federal Endangered Species Act and are therefore the focus of special monitoring and conservation in Iowa. The Indiana Bat is an endangered species that has been on the decline throughout its Midwestern range due to habitat loss for many years, and is increasingly threatened by the exotic fungal disease called White-nose Syndrome (WNS). The northern long-eared bat was once a relatively common bat in the eastern U.S. before their population began to decline after introduction of WNS. Three additional species, little brown bats, big brown bats, and tri-colored bats, are also affected by WNS leading to increased concerned for the health of their populations in Iowa and throughout North America.
The White-nose Syndrome Threat
White-nose syndrome (WNS) is a disease found among North American hibernating bats after they are exposed to the exotic, disease-causing fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd. The Pd fungus, which scientists now know to be found throughout Eurasia, was first described in 2008 as researchers sought to understand what was causing hundreds of bats with white growth on their hairless noses and wings too die in New York starting in 2006. Since then, millions of bats in North America have died due to WNS, leading to widespread population declines in some species.
The five species of bats in Iowa that are vulnerable to WNS are those that hibernate in cool, dark places like caves and abandoned mines during winter. Other species, including the silver-haired bat and red bat have been documented to have Pd on their bodies, but do not develop the symptoms associated with WNS seen among the vulnerable species.
Species vulnerable to WNS experience variable population effects, which biologists are seeking to understand. One hypothesis is that some species are more vulnerable to WNS because their preferred hibernation locations are most suitable for growth of the fungus. Little brown bats, for example, prefer hibernation locations in the same temperature and moisture conditions conducive to Pd growth and have experienced widespread population declines. In contrast big-brown bats, which can tolerate near-freezing temperatures during hibernation, often hibernate in areas where the fungus does not flourish and have been less affected by the disease. Other hypothesis for the different levels of susceptibility among different species include differences in behavior, body size, fat stores, and the micro-biology of their wings and other hairless tissues. Among species most affected by WNS, declines in excess of 90% have been documented just a few years after the introduction of the disease to hibernating populations.
The fungus kills infected bats during the hibernation period, when their lowered body temperatures and hibernation locations create ideal conditions for the growth of this cold-loving fungus and the act of hibernation reduces the activity of their immune system that would ordinarily fight off a fungal infection. Research studies have shown that infected bats consume more of their fat reserves early in hibernation than non-infected bats, which eventually leads to increased frequency of arousals from hibernation, which then leads to even more consumption of fat reserves. In many cases, bats have been observed outside hibernacula in the dead of winter, flying in search of insect foods to restore the fat reserves they’ve lost. Of course insects are not available to consume in the dead of winter so all the additional energy used to fly for food, along with that already used to fight the infection, becomes too much for the infected bats to recover from, resulting in death during late winter.
Bats are among North America’s longest-lived mammals, generally having few young every year in favor of living long lives and producing many young over many years. Prior to WNS, few things were capable of killing large-numbers of bats, so this approach to survival and reproduction worked well to sustain their populations. However now with the new challenge of widespread mortality from WNS, those slow reproductive rates are constraining the ability of surviving bats to recover populations after large mortality events during hibernation. This is leading to widespread population declines in bats affected by WNS in North America. In New York for example, populations declined an average of 73% four years after introduction of WNS. In Indiana, a similar phenomenon was documented, with 80% declines in little brown bat hibernating populations just three years after introduction of the Pd fungus. Many smaller hibernation areas have been completely wiped out in other eastern states.
Pd has been documented on a wide variety of substances, including equipment taken into hibernacula, surfaces within hibernacula themselves, and on bats. Therefore, preventing the spread of Pd to places bats like to go is challenging, as it seems to be easily spread by moving bats. However, wildlife biologists are actively encouraging anyone who may visit hibernacula or possible hibernation locations to follow decontamination protocols carefully. This is especially important for cavers and others who may visit areas separated by large distances or natural barriers to bat movements to prohibit introduction of the fungus into new areas in North America.
Pseudogymnoascus destructans, or Pd for short
Optimal growth temperatures
55-60 degrees Fahrenheit
Method of spread
Contaminated equipment or bat-to-bat
Where it grows and lives
Pd grows on a variety of surfaces including hairless regions of bats but also on surfaces in caves and mines where there are suitable temperatures.
Native to Eurasia with widespread distribution, spreading in North America after first documented in 2006 in New York.
Distribution in Iowa
Unknown, but probable statewide. See the map from USFWS for confirmed cases in Iowa and throughout North America.
Effects on hibernating bats
Fungal growth on hairless nose and wings leads to increased metabolic activity that disrupts hibernation and leads to starvation. Also can erode tissues, creating scars and holes in wings.
How you can help Iowa's bats
Do not disturb hibernating bats
Bats hibernate in buildings, abandoned mine shafts, and caves throughout Iowa, and especially in southern and eastern Iowa. During October to March, be sure to avoid these areas, and when it is absolutely necessary to be around them, be sure to minimize disturbances to hibernating bats to avoid waking them.
Don’t spread Pd
If you are ever in a cave or near hibernating bats, follow the decontamination protocols by the USFWS to prevent spread of Pd.
Manage forests to create bat-friendly habitats to help bats recover and raise their young.
Learn more from this general article by Iowa State University Extension and Outreach or this technical resource on forest management for bats from the USFWS.
Safely and humanely address bat conflicts
If you find bats are using your house, follow the suggestions on our problem wildlife page for safely excluding them without doing any harm.
Build a bat house to enjoy bats in your own backyard and reap the benefits of natural insect control.
- Visit the interagency White-nose Syndrome Response Team page for up to date information on the disease, recommendations for minimizing impacts, and other resources from the USFWS and other wildlife agencies.
- Get the basics on Iowa's Bats in this article from Iowa State Extension and Outreach
- Read more about each of Iowa’s 9 bat species in the Mammals of Iowa Field Guide.
Sources used for this article
Ballmann, A. E., M. R. Torkelson, E. A. Bohuski, R. E. Russell, and D. S. Blehert. 2017. Dispersal hazards of Pseudogymnoascus destructans by bats and human activity at hibernacula in summer. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 53:725-735.
Frick, W. F., J. F. Pollock, A. C. Hicks, K. E. Langwig, D. S. Reynolds, G. G. Turner, C. M. Butchkoski, and T. H. Kunz. 2010. An emerging disease causes regional population collapse of a common North American bat species. Science 329:679-682.
Frick, W. F., T. L. Cheng, K. E. Langwig, J. R. Hoyt, A. F. Janicki, K. L. Parise, J. T. Foster, and A. M. Kilpatrick. 2017. Pathogen dynamics during invasion and establishment of white-nose syndrome explain mechanisms of host persistence. Ecology 98:624-631.
Hayman, D. T. S., J. R. C. Pulliam, J. C. Marshall, P. M. Cryan, and C. T. Webb. 2016. Environment, host, and fungal traits predict continental-scale white-nose syndrome in bats. Science Advances 2.
Hoyt, J. R., K. E. Langwig, K. Sun, G. Lu, K. L. Parise, T. Jiang, W. F. Frick, J. T. Foster, J. Feng, and A. M. Kilpatrick. 2016. Host persistence or extinction from emerging infectious disease: insights from white-nose syndrome in endemic and invading regions. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 283.
Pettit, J. L., and J. M. O'Keefe. 2017. Impacts of white-nose syndrome observed during long-term monitoring of a Midwestern bat community. Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management 8:69-78.
Rentz, M., V. Evelsizer, S. Shepherd, and A. Janke. 2018. Mammals of Iowa Field Guide. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach.
Verant, M. L., J. G. Boyles, W. Waldrep, Jr., G. Wibbelt, and D. S. Blehert. 2012. Temperature-dependent growth of Geomyces destructans, the fungus that causes bat White-Nose Syndrome. PLoS ONE 7:e46280.
Verant, M. L., C. U. Meteyer, J. R. Speakman, P. M. Cryan, J. M. Lorch, and D. S. Blehert. 2014. White-nose syndrome initiates a cascade of physiologic disturbances in the hibernating bat host. BMC Physiology 14:10.