Dry winter an animal house PDF Print E-mail
Written by By JEFF MEYERS, Staff Writer   
Tuesday, January 05, 1999

PLATTSBURGH — A mild beginning to the winter season has given a lot of wild animals a boost in their struggles to survive.

But some creatures may miss the snow.

Until this past weekend, most of the North Country had barely more than a dusting of snow on the ground. Even Sunday's storm brought less snowfall than expected, adding a white blanket that is still far below normal for this time of year.

Deer running free

"I think it's reasonably accurate to state that it's been a very mild winter for white-tailed deer," said Robert Inslerman, director of the Wildlife Unit for the state Department of Environmental Conservation in Ray Brook.

"There have not been the deep snows which normally force them to deer wintering areas."

When the snow depth exceeds 15 inches, deer tend to migrate to "deer yards," where they seek shelter from the snow and cold in softwood forests.

The thick conifer cover reduces the amount of snow on the ground and also insulates the area from the cold.

"When that happens, you have 100 percent of the deer population in about 10 percent of the total deer range," Inslerman said.

"The snow prevents the deer from moving out of the yards, and they soon run out of food."

But this year, deer are still roaming freely throughout most of the region and are finding plenty of food. A lot of bucks killed during big-game season had a tremendous amount of body fat, suggesting that they were eating well.

"From preliminary data we've received, deer are doing especially well in areas affected by the ice storm," Inslerman said.

"There was a lot of food on the ground for them, and that has been a real benefit for their survival."

Whether deer survive winter often depends on what kind of shape they are in going into the season. Healthy animals have a better chance of surviving harsh conditions, and weaker animals can struggle even during mild stretches.

More food for birds

The lack of snow has also been a boon to songbirds, particularly those that rely on seeds for food. Even where snow has fallen, weeds still stick out of the ground, and birds are finding milkweed seeds and other foods to be plentiful.

Birdwatchers are not seeing as many birds around their feeders because their winged friends are not having problems finding wild food.

Turkeys are also benefiting. They can easily dig through the snow cover to find food underneath.

Missing insulation

However, the lack of snow may have hurt mice and other small mammals. The snow acts as an insulating layer for small dens. Without it, animals that live just underneath the surface will have difficulty moving from their burrows to the surface for food.

The warm temperatures haven't kept black bears from seeking dens to hibernate, but the lack of snow may have reduced the number of prime den sites.

Just like smaller mammals, bears benefit from the snow cover that insulates their dens.

Amphibians resilient

The lack of insulating snow and low water levels may also be hard on some amphibians that hibernate in mud, but most species will not be severely impacted.

"They've withstood these kinds of conditions for tens of thousands of years," said Al Brych, an amphibians specialist for the DEC's Endangered Species Unit. "They've developed many strategies to get through the season."

A lot of frogs bury themselves in the forest floor or in streams, where the water normally doesn't freeze. They won't have a problem with the weather, Brych said.

But frogs that hibernate in small ponds that might freeze completely could suffer from a lack of oxygen. Turtles could suffer from the lack of snow cover.

Fattened bats

Bats, another hibernating mammal, have enjoyed the mild season.

"Bats go into hibernation with a limited amount of body fat," said Alan Hicks from the Endangered Unit. "That body fat has to be with them until the spring, so the later they can stay out in the fall, the more reserves they have to survive."

With the mild conditions, bats were still actively hunting as late as mid-November, he pointed out.



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