People generally don’t mind cold weather that much, as long as it’s reasonable. Layers of clothing, home insulation, modern, well-stocked supermarkets and various semi-affordable sources of energy for home heating allow us to survive even the harshest weather.
But what about wild animals? How can wild animals cope with such prolonged bitter cold conditions?
Nature in general is a great supplier. She makes every effort during the evolutionary process to ensure that each species is able to survive within the ecological niche in which it evolved. Either that or nature will send that species into oblivion we call extinction and adapt another to fill the void.
That is the real meaning of ‘survival of the fittest’, and it is the most inflexible law of nature.
Almost everyone knows that white-tailed deer have “hollow” hairs that help them survive the cold. But not everyone understands how a hollow hair can do that service.
Dead air space, such as the air trapped between the layers of glass of double glazing or between the exterior and interior walls of a house, is key. Hollow hairs still have air inside that helps to retain warm body heat and keep out the cold of winter.
At the same time, the densely packed hairs trap even more air around them, adding to their insulating ability.
Deer, like many other forest critters, also have the ability to store fat. When the available food is insufficient for their needs, or when it gets very cold, this fat reserve is tapped for extra food (heat) value.
As long as the individual animals are not over-stressed by other animals such as coyotes or domestic dogs or by too many other deer competing for a limited amount of winter food, they will likely survive and be in relatively good shape.
Deep snow is a whole different story. Two feet of thin crust snow is enough for deer to “dig up,” or congregate in groups of 10 to 50 or more animals.
The yards are usually located in a sheltered area near good food supplies. However, if the deep snow continues and deer are unable to move, they begin to starve as soon as the local food runs out. Deep snow can prevent them from moving to new feeding grounds, even if they are only a short distance away.
When deer are exposed to extremely harsh winter conditions, nature has another way to aid the doe’s survival. If successfully bred during the fall rutting season, a doe that has been winter stressed will actually re-ingest the partially formed fetus of her fawn(s). Although she won’t give birth in the spring, her body has the ability to convert her fetus into useful energy that could save her life.
Wild turkeys don’t have the ability to store a lot of fat, so they have to rely on a steady supply of food. And while they certainly prefer certain foods over others, when they run out of chips, they’ll eat just about anything they can find on their travels.
It is not uncommon to see whole herds grazing in harvested fields, scratching for corn kernels or other grains lost to the combine.
Acorns are one of their favorite food staples. During a good “mast” year, when there are many acorns on the ground, turkey can scratch under oak trees all winter. They will also eat beech nuts if they are available, and ash seeds are another preferred source of wild food. Unfortunately, last year was not good for mast crop production, so this winter could be very difficult for wild turkeys and other animal species.
There is another food option for these large birds. Turkey will feed extensively on wild grapes and wild cherries if the mast crop fails.
Actually, there is a wide variety of berry and seed-producing plants that they will seek out during lean times. They also search for insects, worms, and larvae while scratching the forest debris. If the snow cover does not prevent that activity.
Deep snow can have a devastating effect on turkey. If they can’t walk and scratch, they have to sit down. The wind generally blows some ridges bare, but not always. Herds of turkeys have been observed sitting in the same tree for more than two weeks without moving during inclement weather.
But in the end they have to eat to survive the cold. If their internal reserves run out before they can reach the exposed ground, they will die. Extended periods of deep snow can be a killer on wild turkeys.
People who live in the country of Turkey are often surprised to see a flock of these homely yet somehow noble birds scratching and feeding under their backyard bird feeders.
Wild turkeys are also opportunistic when it comes to winter food. Although they are normally shy birds and avoid human haunts like the plague, they will come to a bird feeder as long as they think they are safe.
But if a human shows up to them even for a fleeting moment, they can quickly leave, or they can just ignore the human and continue eating. I’ve seen both several times.
Some species, such as the woodchuck, take the easy way out. Instead of struggling to find food during the winter, they (and some other species) hibernate for most or all of the winter. Deep sleep in an underground cave is accompanied by greatly reduced body temperature and heart rate.
Body fat provides the minimal calories needed to survive under these conditions, and usually some fat is left over when spring arrives to help the species with the stress of breeding and seeking out some tender new shoots.
Chipmunks also hibernate. But while the woodchuck may wake up two or three times in the winter, squirrels become active every week or so. During these periods, they visit their pantry of stored seeds and grasses for a winter snack. Then it’s bedtime again until the next famine strikes.
Without a doubt, the most efficiently isolated species must be our local wintering waterfowl. Ducks and geese spend most of their time in water slightly warmer than ice.
Sometimes they even sit on the ice to rest. And when they feed, it’s either in a frozen field or below the surface of that cold water.
In the insulation department, nature has been kind to ducks and geese. A thick layer of feathers, made waterproof by oil from a gland on their lower back, keeps wind and moisture away from the skin. A thick underlayer of fluffy but efficient down feathers traps air (heat) next to the skin. This combination allows them to survive even the most frigid weather conditions.
Food, especially for our local hibernating ducks, can be a serious problem. Many of them have become accustomed to getting free gifts from kind-hearted people on the town pier and along the shores of the lake.
If that food supply doesn’t arrive on a given day, they’re still sitting there waiting for it to arrive instead of looking for more natural aquatic foods.
The biggest disservice humans can do to wildlife is to get them used to food and then suddenly stop eating. Wild birds and animals do not understand when the food they have learned to rely on is suddenly no longer there. They will continue to come to the feeder and spend precious time just hanging out when they should be looking for other food sources.
By the time they begin their quest, they may be too weak to survive. And remember that it is illegal to feed deer at any time.
People who have a bird feeder in the backyard run into the same problem. They must be committed and responsible. Once the feeding starts, it cannot be stopped suddenly. This would emphasize the birds that depend on that food.
It is the human responsibility to keep the food coming at all costs. Failure to do so, for whatever reason, is a most inhumane act.
Len Lisenbee is the Daily Messenger’s Outdoor Columnist. Contact him at [email protected]