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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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Wildlife Adjusts to Deal with Heavy Snow

For most of us the word snow probably got added to the list of bad four letter words. For some the inconvenience of not being able to go to the store, the movie or shopping was bad enough. For the rest of us the work of plowing driveways, shoveling walks or having other plans put on hold made snow a most unwelcome sight for the rest of the year. Your outdoor columnist spent Saturday and Sunday on a tractor pushing snow. While there is a beauty to the snow hanging on the trees, sparkling in the bright sunshine or having that clean, fresh look to the woods, there is also a grim reality to deep snow that I noticed as I plowed the road. For animals the snow makes a meal hard to come by.

Many species of birds are able to escape heavy snow by heading south in migration early in the fall. Ducks and geese are among those that fly south to stay just head of the ice and heavy snow. However, other animals such as whitetail deer must find a way to survive right where they are. During the fall, deer pack on the weight for the winter by eating (locally) hay, grasses, nuts such as hickory, beech and acorns. Unless the deer burn off the extra fat they build up during the rut, and some bucks do use a lot of their fat stores, they can survive heavy snowstorms quite well. However, winter and heavy snow is a stressor to deer and they adapt to the weather conditions prior to the weather arriving.
When the deer sense bad weather coming they begin feeding in earnest. If you have spent any amount of time outside observing animals in conjunction with the weather you may recall a sudden “storm” of birds at the feeder or in the leaves in the woods feeding like crazy. This is a harbinger of the weather on the way. Deer do the same thing. They eat and they eat some more. You can count on deer to be on the move scrounging for something to put in their stomach the day before a storm. They do scrounge because during the winter there is very little food that is highly nutritious and available unless someone has a garden still going or some bushes that are tasty near the house or shed.
Once the storm arrives the deer will most often go directly to the thickest thicket they can find and then lay down. Far north of us deer congregate in “yards,” as they are called. Dozens of deer in the northern reaches of our country will congregate in a cedar thicket or pine lot and bed down all together to wait out the storm. The more severe the storm, the less likely it is that they will depart from the area. Deer use very little energy if they remain still.
Our deer do not “yard” as the northern whitetail do, but they will stay in groups of two or three and they will ride out a storm in a thicket. Bucks will often be alone and will bed down with the wind to their back on a ridge and their eyes to the opposite direction where they can watch what may be easing up on them. They will often take the higher ground if possible and lay on the lee side of a log or clump of brush to break the wind and get some shelter. Does will do the same thing in a place where vegetation can help break the wind. Honeysuckle, pine, briars and cedar are all good places to bed down. The honeysuckle thickets offer some browse right where they bed down. This is where they will stay until the storm breaks. At that point they will wander looking for early buds on trees and they will browse the ends of branches too. A southern facing slope is a good one to find deer on right after a storm because they can catch the full effect of the sun to warm them up. While I was plowing, I observed three deer come onto the road to nibble on the freshly exposed grass along the edges. They were in full view of the tractor — it was running and I was sitting on it. Those same three deer (presumably the same ones) have been seen by me several times while driving my truck along the road. The moment I stop to try and take a picture, they bolt. This time they simply looked at me as if I were crazy for interrupting their meal as I waved my arms to see if they would run.
Should we have multiple hard snows and terribly cold days, some fawns can be lost and some older deer can be killed due to the lack of nutrition. This occurs most often where the deer population has surpassed carrying capacity of the land. In short, carrying capacity is the number of deer than the land can support. When there are too many deer for the amount of food available, the deer will begin to eat anything they can that might have some nutrition. This becomes obvious when you see a browse line in the woods. A browse line is a loss of or absence of anything edible from four to five feet high to the ground. The deer simply browse everything off. Fortunately, our area has not had this issue for a while and our deer biologists have managed to use hunting to keep population numbers under the carrying capacity of the land. With development, loss of hunting lands and fragmented habitat, managing the deer population has become tricky, so it is possible that in the future we may see more problems when we have many heavy snows and cold temps.
Other animals deal with foul weather differently. Raccoons, possums and groundhogs can take a few days to sleep. This temporary hibernation is really just that. They simply sleep through the worst of things and then come out when the weather is better. It is better for the animals to conserve their energy rather than burn it for nothing.
Squirrels have a very keen sense of smell and that probably saves the day and their lives during a bad snowstorm. Squirrels have been documented to bury up to 1000 nuts in the fall and are able to locate them with their nose even under a foot or more of snow! However, if a bird feeder, grain bin, a shed with feed or anything similar is nearby, you can count on a squirrel to find it and use it first. They are crafty and persistent. I have had them eat through plastic trashcans to get to chicken feed.
Squirrels don’t care to venture out during a heavy snow or a heavy rain. However, once the precipitation is over they come out in search of food. Their winter dreys, or nests, are lined with bark, fur or moss to help insulate them from the wind, snow or rain so they do quite well. Those squirrels that manage to find a hollow tree or old barn to live in do even better. Squirrels will eat more than nuts. They will consume buds, mushrooms and flower bulbs.
Last, our songbirds have it the toughest. The smallest animals tend to take the weather the hardest. Small birds often try to find a thicket to rest in for thermal cover. Cedar trees are excellent places to find the birds during a storm. They will also take up residence and scrounge for food in old dried up flowerbeds, particularly those that have larger flower stalks that have dried. Butterfly bushes offer some cover and a place where they can scratch for a meal under the stalks too. Broomstraw and briar thickets also offer refuge for songbirds.
The heavy snow covers up a lot of food and exposes the birds to predation by owls, hawks, foxes and house cats. It is not a bad idea to feed the birds during a snowstorm and particularly after the snow has ended until the ground has been exposed again. Anywhere there is exposed ground after a heavy snow you will likely observe birds. As I plowed the road I watched the birds slipping in behind me to peck at the dirt, sand and gravel in hopes of finding something nutritious.
Although it may seem cruel to some that many birds and some other species of animals don’t make it through a big storm, that is the way it must be. Without death there would more suffering for others of the same species. When an animal dies, that leaves more food for the remaining animals. While sad and grim at times it is a fact of life. Most animals in our area are readily able to deal with an occasional winter squall, even to the degree of the one we just had. Keep your camera handy for those great winter shots of animals. They are easy to see against a white background. Merry Christmas!

Mark Fike

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