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BLANE KLEMEK OUTDOORS: Some animals are making out better than others this winter

By and large, our year-round resident species of wild birds fare much better than many non-hibernating species of Minnesota mammals such as white-tailed deer, fox, fisher and even tree squirrels.

Klemek - red brested nuthatch
A red-breasted nuthatch perches on a feeder near the Visitor’s Center on Sunday, Feb. 20. 2022, in Itasca State Park.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Watching wild birds feeding at my feeders is a joy, and an obligation of sorts, especially this winter, which has been harsh for creatures of the wild.

When the snow gets deep and temperatures plunge, many species of wildlife experience hardship when it becomes too difficult to move around, much less locate food that’s buried beneath more than two feet of snow.

By and large, our year-round resident species of wild birds fare much better than many non-hibernating species of Minnesota mammals such as white-tailed deer, fox, fisher and even tree squirrels.

In the case of deer, these relatively small animals can’t move through the powdery snow very well to forage when the snow exceeds 15-inches deep.

Predatory mammals cannot run and capture their prey nearly as efficiently as they normally can when snows aren’t as deep. In fact, some prey such as voles live underneath the snow as they burrow tunnels on the ground surface and rarely come out.

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Have you ever seen a fox pounce into the snow? Though their hearing is extraordinary and their headfirst dives are often precise, much energy is expended in this manner of hunting. Valuable energy. Energy that they and all species of wintertime wildlife, both predator and prey, rely on for survival.

A short snowshoe hike in my little woods a few days ago revealed the daily struggle of neighborhood wildlife. Signs of deer were everywhere but rarely did deer stray far from trodden trails.

Hazel brush, dense as it is, show evidence of heavy browse activity, some of which was knocked down so tender tips could be browsed upon. Spruce trees, too, were being fed on. Anytime a deer chooses to bite off the branch-tips of spruce, one knows that the winter is harsh.

In a less severe winter, we would notice abundant tracks in the snow from all kinds of wildlife in most woodlands and forests. But this winter’s snowfall is very soft and deep and wildlife without wings tend to avoid traveling through it if it can be avoided.

Tree squirrels, though able to navigate the canopies with ease, are not as adept at locating their caches buried in the ground beneath the snow. As such, these hungry squirrels will take risks to secure food out in the open that sometimes makes them vulnerable to predation by owls and mammalian predators.

A few weeks ago, I observed wild turkeys feeding in a cornfield not far from my home. I noticed several well-worn trails in the snow leading to the field on both sides of the highway.

None of the farm crops planted on this property are ever harvested. The entire acreage is a veritable food plot that’s planted by the deer hunters that own the land.

Though a boon for wildlife that are lucky enough to live nearby, birds such as wild turkeys and mammals like deer often end up being struck by vehicles crossing the roadway to reach the food.

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Some birds actually thrive during winters like this year. Soft and deep snow is perfect for ruffed grouse. How can that be, especially when so many other wildlife species struggles?

Ruffed grouse and other species of native grouse such as sharp-tailed grouse, spruce grouse and prairie chickens, burrow underneath the snow to escape frigid temperatures and storms.

Aside from the protection and warmth of “snow roosts” as they’re called, these snow burrows have the added benefit of protection from predators.

Ruffed grouse also have special comb-like skin projections that grow from the sides of their toes. These structures serve as natural snowshoes but are also extremely valuable for gripping slippery branches and limbs of woody shrubs and treetops as they feed on woody plants like dogwood berries and hazel, aspen, and alder buds and catkins. These special birds are remarkable in their abilities to find food and survive.

Our backyard bird feeding stations are important to winter birds (and often other creatures, too) although seemingly insignificant in the big picture when one considers populations of wild birds. And yet in a small way our collective efforts benefit some wild birds to help them better cope with a long winter.

Meanwhile, most other species of wild creatures, adaptive and survivors they are, will find a way to see the warmth and promise of springtime as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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Related Topics: BLANE KLEMEKNORTHLAND OUTDOORSOUTDOORS RECREATION
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