Adapt or Die; How Wildlife Survives Winter

Adapt or Die; How Wildlife Survives Winter

Jan 30, 2015

A week of subzero cold early in January—and more yet to come—provide a quick jolt of Iowa reality. It gets uncomfortable in the winter! Still, we humans can escape the elements when needed. We just go inside. Not so, with wildlife.

Some take the easy way out. “Waterfowl are smarter than all those other critters. They have wings. They fly away”, explains Al Hancock, of Clear Lake. Of course, he would feel that way. He’s an Iowa DNR waterfowl specialist. “It’s a simple balancing act. Geese need very little open water. As long as they can find fields to feed in–windswept, bare cropfields—they will remain”, says Hancock. “When it takes more food to maintain energy to survive up here…they fly right out.”

Some look for a cold weather oasis. “Ducks do it even more so”, says Hancock. A ‘micro climate’, say a city waste water lagoon, a stream or the drainage just below? If it’s out of the wind, a few mallards will stick around.”

Mammals have various survival methods. Some hibernate. Others lie low, but eat as much as they can. “You might find deer moving earlier to feed; in the afternoon rather than as dusk falls”, notes DNR forest research technician Jim Coffey. They have larger body mass; larger frames—efficient for maintaining core temperature. “Deer have hollow hairs, insulating them from the cold”, says Coffey. “That’s why you see them (bedded down) and covered with snow. It won’t melt.”

In the woodlands, it is adapt or die. Found around Iowa, the 20-pound-plus eastern wild turkey is the largest of five subspecies in the U.S. Again, its larger body mass is more efficient. Black and brown feathers absorb heat. By fluffing those feathers, they hold in heat. “They will minimize heat loss, by roosting downhill, out of the wind”, says Coffey. If it gets too cold, they hunker down. They can go ten days without food; or wade through ten inches of snow (to find it).”

Pheasant populations, survival and lack of habitat in Iowa have been well documented in the last decade. They do well for about eight months a year. It’s the cold weather season that does them in. “Four years–2007-2011–really brought to our attention the extreme winter weather”, stresses DNR upland wildlife technician Mark McInroy. “It has drawn our focus to more winter habitat; for survival in extreme conditions.”

That means more than native grasses; even cattail marshes; which protect pheasants and other grassland birds in first level snowstorms. “A lot of times they fill quickly”, warns McInroy. “(Then,) we’re talking shrubs; really course, heavy stemmed stuff. Ragweed, willow bats; shelter belts with several rows of shrubs and pines are good.”

Put them near a food source and most pheasants can ride out the extreme weather that has collared Iowa recently. And that the same cover helps other wildlife species, too.

On the plus side, Iowa’s favorite game bird has staged a bit of a comeback. “Our bird numbers are getting to probably the best we’ve seen in six, eight years. We finally had a break this winter from all the extremes. It’s been a pretty good hunting year”, he proclaims.


Sidebar: no wildlife feeding.

Pour out some corn for the pheasants? Worst thing you can do. You may have your heart in the right place. However, predators also enjoy it. Dumping grain pretty well guarantees anything with paws, claws, beaks and bellies will get their fill, as well. Want to help game birds get through the winter? Plant the habitat they need. If it’s near a food source; great. That needed cover is nearby.

Also…Waterfowl watchers, and more recently deer biologists, point to the spread of disease as a reason NOT to concentrate wildlife in one location. Disease can be spread by close contact, such as dozens of deer muzzles browsing on the same food source.