How do wildlife survive the harsh realities of winter?

Animals like mink have learned to adapt to the cold winters of Ohio. (Photo by Mike Mainhart)

Akron, Ohio — The ongoing cold and snows should not impact wildlife survival, though any prolonged crusting likely will make survival more challenging for many creatures. For fish, the answer is they almost certainly can take some pretty brutal conditions. Any key to when such difficulties arise for wildlife depends upon the duration – and thickness – of crusting over snow cover, says biologists with the Ohio Division of Wildlife.

“We’ll see what happens,” said Geoff Westerfield, wildlife biologist with the agency’s District Three (Northeast Ohio) office in Akron. “If the crust stays for only a few days there shouldn’t be any issues. But, if it lingers longer, then some problems could develop.

“And a lot depends also on how thick is the crust,” Westerfield says.

And it also depends upon the wildlife species. Some critters such as quail, pheasants, and other ground-dependent birds can find winter life more difficult than birds that roost and feed in trees, such as most songbirds and ruffed grouse, said Westerfield.

“Turkeys can be one of those species where a crust could cause problems, too,” Westerfield said.

Of prime interest to many sportsmen is how white-tailed deer fare in winter, particularly if a heavy crust digs in for the long haul. Here, however, deer are adapted enough to cut through some crust to get to food sources or actually use it as a surface when it is strong enough to hold their weight. If so, the deer can still reach buds and the twigs of bushes, shrubs, and trees, Westerfield says.

“If the crust is thick enough to support the weight of a person, it is certainly strong enough to support the weight of a deer,” he said.

Importantly, the depth of the snow underneath the crust is likewise a factor, though that is seldom a serious problem.

“Even in extreme northeast Ohio,” Westerfield says.

For generalists like raccoons, possums, and skunks, a crusted snow is no more difficult to cope with than soft snow. Meanwhile, though squirrels may have their ground-stored food stuffs buried under a vault of crusted snow, many squirrels will cache their nuts in tree cavities, Westerfield says.

As for feeding songbirds during tough winters, that issue is a two-edged sword: Feeders provide a ready meal for the little birds but make them a more accessible target for predators, Westerfield says.

“Hawks have to eat, too, and they see the feeders as a potential easy meal ticket,” he said. “The thing is, if there were no feeders, the birds will still have to struggle to find food sources anyway.”

At least an unusually mild November and December combined with a record hard mast crop meant that wildlife were in good physical condition going into this spate of weather nastiness, Westerfield says.

“It’s stuff your bellies full now because you don’t know what’s coming down the road,” he said.

Fish are almost certainly well adapted to the harsh realities of winter, even during periods of thaws that cause streams to overflow their banks with uprooted trees and rafts of thick ice barreling down the current, said Curt Wagner, Westerfield’s fisheries biologist counterpart.

“In streams, fish swim to the margins, go into the deepest holes or get behind a big rock or a bridge piling,” Wagner said.

Other fish, such as steelhead, that are in a stream’s lower reaches, might even go back out into a larger river or a lake to escape the velocity and associated current pummeling. And small creek fish species like darters simply rely on their natural adaptation to survive, Wagner said.

Asked if fish get bonked and die from uprooted trees and large ice flows, Wagner said it probably happens, “but I don’t believe it’s very common.”

“Fish just try to keep their heads down,” he said.

Categories: Ohio – Jeffrey Frischkorn

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