IOWA DERECHO 2020

Harmful to humans, Iowa derecho could help wildlife

Experts predict storm's toll will create new habitats

A female cardinal perches on a downed tree in Cedar Rapids after a powerful storm with straight-line winds moved through
A female cardinal perches on a downed tree in Cedar Rapids after a powerful storm with straight-line winds moved through Iowa Aug. 10. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

CEDAR RAPIDS — As destructive as the derecho was for humans, wildlife experts in Iowa say the Aug, 10 storm could lead to booms in many of the state’s animal populations in coming years.

“I think overall the direct impacts of the storm were, probably for the most part, pretty minor when it comes to the wildlife,” said Todd Bogenschutz, an upland game biologist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. “Yeah, it was a major storm, which is not something that wildlife is unused to, so they’re pretty good about hunkering down.”

That said, Bogenschutz noted it has only been about two weeks since the storm and it is too early to tell how extensive the damage is.

“We can speculate,” he said, “But we haven’t surveyed everything yet.”

One positive, he said, is that he hasn’t heard any reports regarding large “wildlife mortality events, but we probably really won’t know until hunting season.”

Hard as it might be to believe when looking at the storm’s damage, Bogenschutz said he expects the long-term impacts of the storm to be positive for wildlife.

Damaged crops, though terrible for farmers, could serve as large feeding plots for deer, pheasants, rabbits and other animals if the plants are left in the fields. Downed trees and timber will create new habitats for bugs and new nesting spots for birds. And, with more sunlight shining through the canopy and hitting the forest floor, Bogenschutz said we could see a resurgence of grasslands, leading to more plant diversity.

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“That could really be a boom to turkeys and deer and cottontail rabbits because the storm just opened up the timber, made a bazillion brush piles and potential habitats and nesting sites,” he said. “With the canopy thinned out in some places, we’re going to have a lot more sunlight hitting the floor, which means were going to have a flush of young weeds and trees making great brood habitat for things like turkeys and rabbits and great fawning habitat for deer. So actually, looking out into the future, we might see a bump up in some of those populations.”

“I think we’ll see very similar benefits with our raptor population,” said Ryan Anthony, director of the Iowa Raptor Project.

Raptors — large birds of prey that have sharp beaks and long talons — feed on small animals and smaller birds, he said. And with the canopy thinned and lots of timber down creating more habitats, that can only benefit the raptor population.

“When the storm initially hit, we did get a lot of reports of injured birds and injured fledglings,” Anthony said. “And now that the storm has passed, yes we are seeing a change in the canopy, but there are very few cases so far where things have just been completely wiped out. So I think this will allow for some regeneration, which is a natural process and could bring a lot of benefit to the area.”

When looking at the damage from the perspective of wildlife, Anthony said, the downed trees and broken timber actually are causing “variety in the forest structure” by creating different heights and canopy densities.

The broken timber likely will create new habitats for insects. They’ll hollow out cavities that will later be used as nesting sites for birds. Plus, more insects means more food for birds.

And a change in canopy density will lead to new vegetation, which will provide new food sources for many ground dwelling animals — large and small.

“Booms in those small bird and small animal populations means more food for the raptors, which will likely lead to booms in those populations as well,” Anthony said.

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It’s likely there are some animals that may not reap such benefits from the storm, Anthony said. Some bird species rely on a closed forest canopy for their habitats and it’s likely some of those populations have been displaced.

And some raptors, like the bald eagle and osprey that return to the same nesting sites year after year, may have lost their nesting grounds.

“But even that is not going to have a huge impact,” he said. “The eagles will find another tree to nest in and the birds that prefer a closed canopy will find denser woods to live in. They will adapt and they will likely be fine.”

“If there is any population I’m wondering about, it’s the songbirds,” said Steve woodruff, a wildlife biologist with the Iowa DNR Iowa River Wildlife Unit. “Especially the ones here in the city. They lost a lot of habitat and easily could have been injured or killed in those winds.”

Right after the storm, a handful of Iowa derecho resource pages were created on Facebook. In many of those groups, Facebook users have commented about seeing less wildlife, including songbirds, in their areas.

“I’ve seen some of those posts, and haven’t seen hardly any (songbirds) either,” Woodruff said. “But that’s doesn’t really tell us anything. I’m sure a lot of birds were displaced in the initial days after the storms and their trees were destroyed and taken down. And I’m sure some moved on to other areas.”

At the same time, Iowa is now entering the time of year when birds start to migrate, “so seeing fewer birds in the area could also be a result of that.”

“The truth is we’re not really going to know the long-term impacts of this storm for several months,” he said. “I think we’ll learn a lot when hunting season begins, because we’ll have a lot more people out in the woods looking at the wildlife and reporting information to us. But even then, I think we’ll still have a lot to learn.”

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Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

How to help wildlife

• If you find an injured bird or animal, contact a licensed rehabilitator and follow his or her instructions.

•The Iowa Department of Natural Resources recommends you look for signs of injury or listlessness, but don’t approach the animal or try to help it by yourself — that includes providing food or water.

• Ask local wildlife rehabilitation resources for help:

Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR), 712-830-6116: SOAR receives injured birds with the help of volunteers, Iowa DNR conservation officers, county conservation board staff and other wildlife rehabilitation groups.

Raptor Advocacy Rehabilitation and Education Group, 319-248-9770. RARE is a nonprofit raptor rescue located in Iowa City dedicated to the rehabilitation and conservation of birds of prey, as well as the occasional song bird or waterfowl.

Wildthunder Wildlife and Animal Rehabilitation and Sanctuary, 319-961-3352. The nonprofit organization in Independence is state and federally licensed in animal welfare and rescue. It works with multiple species of injured and orphaned wildlife, including reptiles, bats, raptors and mammals.

Black Hawk Wildlife Rehabilitation Project, 319-277-6511. The group is dedicated to providing care to injured, orphaned and otherwise impaired wildlife and releasing them back into the wild.

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