By Frank Allen, Area Wildlife Biologist
Over 560 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians make their homes in Alabama. They all must eat in order to survive. Fruits, seeds, insects, berries, acorns, grasses, and other animals are just a few examples of natural wildlife food. Almost without exception, wild animals prefer naturally occurring food over any type of food humans may try to provide for them. Mother Nature’s cupboard provides a plethora of food throughout the year. Some years are better than others are, and each time the seasons change new food sources replace the expired ones. Most wildlife species have an extremely diverse diet. The ability to properly identify and locate an animal’s favorite food source will allow more viewing or hunting opportunities.
Animals are specifically designed to utilize their section of the food chain. Some animals are highly selective, while others will eat virtually anything that will fit in their mouth. Cardinals, as generalists, are known to eat more than 100 types of seeds and fruits. Also, recent research has identified more than 350 plant species and 300 animal species in Eastern wild turkey crops (a pouch that resembles a stomach). Bald eagles are more specialized than turkeys. Their diet consists of dead or dying fish and the occasional road kill.
The availability of food is often determined by the season of the year. Animals must be able to locate and adapt to different habitats that produce seasonal foods. For example, in late summer, crows raid fig trees and coyotes prey upon deer fawns. Whitetail deer begin grazing winter annuals and browsing greenbriar after the acorn crop has been depleted. Red foxes utilize insects and fruits during the summer, but their diet changes to small mammals and birds when wintertime rolls around.
Late winter and late summer are often the worst times of year for wildlife due to depleted food supplies and harsh weather conditions. Highly nutritional foods are preferred and are the first to disappear. When times are really hard, and food is at a minimum, some animals can make necessary adjustments. To ensure survival, squirrels can regulate their reproductive rate so populations do not exhaust food sources.
Alabama is blessed with natural regions that support abundant wildlife populations. Eventually all plants and animals become part of the food chain. This is nature’s way of keeping wildlife communities in balance. If you are interested in viewing or hunting a particular animal you know nothing about, find out what it likes to eat, locate the food source, and your chances of success will dramatically increase.