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BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Winter sets in, and the search for food is heightened for wildlife

We're definitely experiencing January weather. The snow has piled up and the temperatures have plummeted to double digits below zero. Wild birds are flocking to our feeders, white-tailed deer aren't nearly as active as they were just a couple of months ago, and many a bird and mammal that haven't either migrated southward or escaped to a hibernaculum are desperately searching for food and shelter.

Blane KlemekUp until mid-December birds were having no difficulty in finding preferred, natural foods throughout the landscape, wherever they may be. Be it grassland, a farm field or forest, birds and other wildlife were doing well for themselves because the lack of snow-cover enabled wildlife to easily find food.

Now, however, because of snow depth, locating food has become more difficult. And it's likely the reason why our backyard handouts have become especially appreciated and beneficial to our feathered friends, rabbits, squirrels and other critters. The high-energy black oil sunflower seeds and suet are extremely prized by wild birds, and much of their time spent at our backyard feeders is devoted to caching seeds for later consumption rather than actually eating the seeds right then and there.

When given a choice, many wild creatures will choose natural foods over other options such as birdseed more often than not. Evidence of this very fact is often played out when Minnesota's bear hunters attempt to harvest bears. Some summers are more conducive than other summers are for berry and nut production. Acorns, blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, blackberries, hazel nuts, you name it, sometimes are produced with such abundance that bears and other species of wildlife have no difficulty whatsoever in finding and consuming the fatty foods. And thus, during seasons-of-plenty when the bear hunting season begins, hunters sometime find out that given a choice bears will choose natural forage over unnatural foods—namely hunters' baits.

This is the case for nearly all that is wild. Deer are the same way. When oak mast is available and acorns everywhere are falling from oak trees to the forest floor, a nearby cornfield full of ripe corn won't be as attractive a food choice for deer and other wildlife as a thick bed of acorns. Deer, bear, rodents and wild birds love acorns and instinctively know that acorns are an important and nutritious food source that must be exploited while supplies last. And those supplies really aren't inexhaustible.

There are more than just deer going after all the nuts and berries of the woodland. Wildlife of all kinds compete with one another for these food items whether they realize it or not. Chipmunks garner many pounds of nuts minute-by-minute from before sunrise to after sunset until practically the last nut and last day before hibernation is necessary. Wood ducks, ruffed grouse and wild turkeys busily fill their crops with acorns wherever they find them. Blue jays collect acorns one by one, feeding on each nut individually and positioning each acorn between its feet while hammering the hard shell open with their bills to get to the prize inside. And of course black bears eat almost nonstop for weeks on end until they lay down for their long winter slumber.

Yet no matter what conditions are like outdoors weather-wise and food-wise, wild birds that we typically see at our feeders in the wintertime will still accept our backyard offerings. Even so, it is also true that wild birds don't necessarily need us to feed them, because despite the deep snow and lack of natural foods, wild birds are very adept at locating the available natural foods to collect and consume.

Some foods, surprisingly, are only available in the late fall and winter months. For example, black-capped chickadees and downy woodpeckers are proficient at exploiting a little known food source from goldenrod galls. Wintering inside these bulbous galls that grow on the stems of goldenrod plants is a tiny worm, which is actually the larva of the goldenrod gall fly. Indeed, while it's no mystery that the scrumptious larvae are good to eat and are a welcome source of protein, just how exactly chickadees and downy woodpeckers ever come to know that inside a goldenrod gall is food is even a bigger mystery!

But the fact remains that they do know and perhaps it is a learned trait—I'm not sure—yet chickadees and downy woodpeckers will peck at the relatively soft plant tissue surrounding the gall until they reach the larva inside. However, when snows are deep, many plants are covered up and unavailable, yet most of the time the plant tops where galls are typically located close to are just above the snowpack and readily visible and available.

Voles, those scampering little mouse-like mammals, spend pretty much the entire winter beneath the snow. At that interface where snow meets earth, voles are going about their lives as active as ever—they don't hibernate. Snow also serves as excellent protection for plants and, hence, the voles' preferred food source. Ground hugging herbaceous plants and small trees and shrubs are protected from cold, wind, and sun by a blanket of snow, but underneath, where the vole lives, such plants and sometimes the bark of certain woody plants are available for voles to feed upon.

Of course, some creatures choose to migrate. As food supplies dwindle, most species of wild birds that we observe in the spring, summer and fall travel to warmer climates. However, many birds remain behind—and for those that do stay here throughout the winter, food and its availability becomes critically important and, I suppose, the primary reason we feed birds and other wildlife as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.