By David Hawke -- Let me do a quick recap of the recent winter weather: plus 5C thaw, rain showers, then minus 25C, four inches of snow, plus another six inches of snow, then minus 25C again, and now four more inches of snow.
For us, that’s quite the annoying weather record. But with the right clothing and attitude we can get by. However, for wildlife, this is perhaps the most dangerous time of the year for them.
Any critter that’s active in winter must gain energy to generate heat to keep the blood flowing and the brain alert. To ‘gain energy’ means it has to eat; herbivores need succulent buds to chew upon, and carnivores need succulent herbivores to chew upon. ‘Twas always thus.
The main stomach of a white-tailed deer is about the size of a volleyball, and it has to filled daily with tree buds. That’s a lot of nibbling. And if there are 50 deer yarded together, that’s a huge amount of daily nibbling. And if they are in the yard for about 120 winter days, let’s hope for their sake it’s a big forest.
If the forest is not big enough, or a new cottage road has been cut through the middle of it, the deer are in trouble, as their sharp hooves punch down through the deep snow and wandering off the packed trail is known as “a bad idea”.
Does are pregnant and have few weeks to go before giving birth. So, with a food shortage and a limited area to find the needed culinary items, things can get a little scary for deer as we go through the last push of winter.
The coyotes of the area are also feeling the dietary pinch. Meadow voles are safely tunneling deep under the snow, snowshoe hare are being fleet of foot, nigh on impossible to catch, and any apples that may have fallen last fall are also well buried under snow and ice. But venison will do in a pinch to survive.
The coyotes make use of the deer’s packed trails and weakened condition to find enough red meat for their family’s survival. And by having one less deer in the winter yard, the remaining browse food can be used by the other deer. It all balances out.
A brief snowshoe hike around our farm revealed that the coyotes had been crisscrossing the plantation with their early morning hunts. We also have snowshoe hare and cottontail rabbits here, but their thick furry feet are easily keeping them atop of the crusty snow. And away from the snapping jaws of a desperate coyote.
What the hares and rabbits do have to worry about are the nearby great-horned owls. February and March are nesting times for these large owls, and an easy catch of a hare or rabbit dinner is most appreciated. And as both the predator and the prey are out and about at the same times of day (which is dawn and dusk) the chance of an intersecting flight path is good.
However, those “waskally wabbits” don’t make it easy for the owls. The large snowshoe hare turns white in winter to blend in with the snow, while the smaller cottontail rabbit stays brown but sticks close to a burrow located under a brush pile. But should one of these Lagomorphs (the scientific Order that includes rabbits and hares) hop out into the open prior to looking left, looking right, looking up, looking down, then supper is served!
Two other seasonal challenges that may have a nasty impact of some wildlife species are ticks and the mange parasite.
A lot of mammals can carry ticks through the winter, but moose have a really bad time of it. As I’m sure you can imagine, having a tick burrowed into your skin can be pretty gross, but to add to your nightmare, imagine 1,000 of these grape-sized ticks altogether attached to your hide. “EWWWW! GROSS! Get them off! Get them off!”
The moose spend a lot of time rubbing against tree trunks seeking relief and trying to shed these engorged ticks. But the ticks hang on and the moose hair is what actually gets rubbed off. So, when the freezing rain of March hits, followed by a really cold snap, the naked moose suffers hypothermia as well as blood loss from the ongoing tick festival.
Now, from a timber wolf’s point of view, a weak moose is akin to a lucky lottery win! Moose steaks and cutlets will be shared amongst the wolves, with table scraps left over for hungry ravens, fisher and eagles. So, everybody wins (well, except the moose).
Throughout the year, as you wander trails and backwoods forests, look for the signs of browsed twigs. Shrubs and young trees that are heavily browsed indicate the winter presence of deer, moose, hares or rabbits. To tell which animal survived the winter by nibbling this branch, look closely at the tip that was cut off.
If the cut is clean, as if done with a knife, the nibbler is a Lagomorph (hare or rabbit)! If the cut is ragged with half the twig cut the other side torn, it was chewed upon by an Ungulate (that would be yer moose or deer). Deer have front teeth only on the bottom jaw so end up ripping the bud off, whereas a hare has very sharp incisors top and bottom, which makes for a clean nip of the bud.
Spring is nigh; I can still see the sun as it sets at 6:30 p.m.! While we may be annoyed at the slow pace of seasonal change, wildlife are now entering the battle for their lives.
Dave’s Notebook: March has started with the typical "lion vs lamb" weather. Forecast is calling for rain, ice, snow, strong gales and a moment of high temps. It is so exciting to live here and witness this hourly change of weather!
© 2022 David J. Hawke