Snow, cold and ice make it a hard winter for wildlife

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Nick Crow
Thursday, January 23, 2014

JANESVILLE—Outdoor enthusiasts might be having fun in this winter's arctic-like conditions, but wildlife have to survive despite deep snow, below-zero temperatures and sheets of ice.

Mike Foy, wildlife biologist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said animals usually are prepared for winter conditions and have adapted to the environment that they live in.

“I can't say that we've had a lot of reports of animals struggling down here,” Foy said. “Up north, they certainly are. Wildlife that is in good shape can get though this period without too much trouble.”

For deer, browsing, the process of continually nibbling vegetation, keeps up their strength for winter, he said.

“Deer by nature are browsers,” Foy said. “Even more so in winter. Most animals, if they can feed OK, they can handle the cold.”

Deer who started the season in bad health may not be doing well, Foy said.

“You're looking at individuals more than large population losses,” Foy said. “I've not been hearing of too many, but that doesn't mean people aren't finding them. But will we see fewer deer or fewer turkeys in the spring? The answer is no. It's based on the condition of the individual animal.”

Brian Buenzow, DNR wildlife technician in Janesville, said birds often have the most trouble during harsh winters.

“This cold and snow is very hard on the quail population,” Buenzow said. “They are on the northern edge of their population range in Wisconsin. This is pushing it. Likewise with pheasants.”

Buenzow advises bird lovers to put out more feed and provide running water during winter months.

“The colder it is, the more activity there is around the bird feeder,” Buenzow said. “A feeder and free running water is an attractive option to them at this time of year.”

Ryan Brady, research scientist for the DNR, said birds adapt to winter weather by:

-- Behavioral modifications such as roosting in sheltered and insulated areas, in groups or fluffing up plumage to trap heat.

-- Physiological changes such as growing more feathers, depositing fat, shivering and undergoing regulated hypothermia.

“The public can help by providing dense vegetative cover and nest boxes for roosting, supplying high-fat foods such as suet and black-oil sunflower seeds and taking extra care not to disturb birds from essential activities during these stressful times,” Brady said.

Cold isn't much of an issue as the ability to find food, Buenzow said.

“It's critical that they take in enough calories to survive all night to make it to the next morning,” Buenzow said. “It's a life or death thing for them.”

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