Life

Crusty snow in late winter challenges wildlife

Marion Patterson

The Pattersons found a dead woodpecker that may have died due to this year’s harsh winter.
Marion Patterson The Pattersons found a dead woodpecker that may have died due to this year’s harsh winter.

Few conditions are as challenging to most wild animals as late winter crusty snow.

Animals have an amazing ability to find sheltered places and merely wait until more moderate weather allows them to venture forth. Deer, like many mammals, enter the winter with a thick layer of fat under their skin. It sustains them through storms when they can’t move around to forage.

Birds are less fortunate than most mammals. They wait out only the most severe storms and spend nights tucked into sheltered spaces. Because most birds can’t accumulate much fat, they must frequently find nutritious energy-rich food to maintain their body temperature.

Generally, severe cold doesn’t pose a serious problem for northern wildlife. Hair and feathers provide outstanding insulation. Their problem is sustained deep snow, and especially crusty snow that remains on the ground for weeks on end. By late winter fat reserves are depleted. An icy crust on snow seals the ground, making it hard for wild turkeys and deer to find nutritious acorns beneath it. Crust also cuts the legs of large animals.

Winter is the season of high mortality and normally the number of cottontails, deer, squirrels and other animals is at its annual low just before spring. Iowa deer hardly ever starve, although sometimes this happens in overpopulated populations in far northern states.

It is human nature to want to help wildlife. Winter deer readily eat corn left for them by people but feeding them can pose hazards. For example, it causes animals to concentrate around food piles where they can spread disease to each other.

Chronic wasting disease, a deer degenerative disease, is especially concerning. A pile of corn in a backyard may also tempt deer to cross busy roads where they create a safety hazard to themselves and motorists.

High energy sunflower and nyger seeds may help songbirds survive the winter. Birds and squirrels coming to the feeder certainly bring colorful life to people watching them from their home’s toasty interior.

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By far the best way to help winter wildlife is to think long term and configure a yard so it provides animals natural food and shelter. Planting a diversity of trees, shrubs, and tall grasses gives wildlife safety from the weather and predators and natural food just outside the window.

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