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by Stan Tekiela
March 6, 2023
Winter weather has been in the news a lot lately. In particular, the amount of snow blanketing many parts of the northern states. Where I’m located in the upper Midwest, we have had over 4 feet of snow along with some bone breaking cold temperatures. So, the natural question to ask is, does the deep snow and cold impact wildlife/nature in a negative or positive way?
The deep snow represents an advantage for some animals and a distinct disadvantage for others. Some animals such as Raccoons, Skunks and Opossum will spend upwards of a month or more held up in a protected spot under a building or inside a hollow tree for the coldest and snowiest parts of the winter. This is not a hibernation. This is self-preservation and avoiding the harshness of winter and could be seen as a negative.
Some animals such as Moose enjoy winter weather. Their long legs help them to navigate through the deep snow and food is plentiful. Moose have issues with Winter Ticks. These tiny blood suckers can overwhelm a moose in winter and deplete them of their blood thus weakening them in winter. The extremely cold temperatures help to kill off the Winter Ticks and improve the health of the individual Moose and is definitely a positive.
In general, owls do very well in cold winters and deep snow. In fact, the hunting is so good that the Great Horned Owls nest at this time of year. Yep, you read that correctly. Great Horned Owls start to nest in January and February. The female chooses a nest site. They don’t build a nest but rather take over an existing nest, such as a Red-tailed Hawk or Crow nest. The female simply moves the snow away and settles in. Winter is a positive for owls.
Of course, small animals such as Chipmunks and Woodchucks are in their dens hibernating during winter. The process of hibernation reduces the animals’ heart rate, respiration, and metabolic motility. Woodchucks don’t store food for winter. They try to put on enough fat in the summer and fall to last them all winter. Chipmunks on the other hand have small bodies and can’t put on enough fat to last all winter so they store large amounts of food in their den and will wake up every three to four weeks to feed on their stored food before falling back into hibernation. So cold and snow really doesn’t affect these critters.
A lot of species depend upon deep snow. Ruffed Grouse will dive into a snowdrift to roost overnight. The snow acts like an insulating blanket. Under the thick snow, near the earth’s surface, the temperature is around 32 degrees F. while the outside air temperature can be well below zero. The greater the temperature gradient between a bird’s body core temperature and the outside air the more energy it takes for the bird to keep warm. Energy comes from eating food so if they don’t eat enough, they will run out of energy and die. The blanket of snow goes a long way to reducing the temperature gradient between the bird and air temperatures.
Many animals are well adapted to snow and cold. The Snowshoe Hare for example has large hind feet that act like snowshoes, hence their name, and during winter they grow more fur on their feet to add more surface area which allows them to stay on the top of the snow. By staying on the top of the deep snow allows the Snowshoe Hare to reach twigs and other food that would normally be out of reach with no snow.
Canada Lynx and Bobcats also do well in winter weather. They grow thick fur that keeps them warm and dry. The long legs of the Canada Lynx help them to get through the deep snow. Their feet are huge and act like snowshoes. Winter is a time of plenty for these cats which hunt birds and small mammals in winter.
Small birds such as Black-capped Chickadee and American Goldfinch put on extra layer of fat for the winter. Most small birds put on about one-third more feathers during winter months. Like putting on a down-feather jacket this keeps them warm during winter and the extra fat fuels their thermoregulating system.
Extreme winter weather is nothing new for wildlife. Nature is always seeking a balance so extreme snow and cold is not just a negative but is also a positive for wildlife. We just need to have a better understanding of the workings of nature. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on www.instagram.com, www.facebook.com and twitter.com. He can be contacted via his website at naturesmart.com.
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
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