Hunters, non-hunters worry about wicked winters

It is not just hunters who express concern for the state’s wildlife during a prolonged and wicked winter. Many non-hunters also wonder how wildlife survives during rough winters.

It is not easy to explain nor to contemplate. But wildlife copes differently than humans do with harsh conditions.

Here is a quote from the vintage book “Rambling through Penn’s Woods,” a hard-to-find book these days since it was published in 1981. The book is a collection of articles once published in The Pennsylvania Naturalist magazine and there is one chapter on the subject of wildlife in winter. Three writers, Dave Shelter, Mike Ondik and Dave Snyder, collaborated on authoring this chapter so I don’t know which of the writers actually wrote this quote.

“As I hiked back to the cabin one winter night I wondered how the animals survive when the temperature plunges and the wind howls. The landscape seems so bleak and inhospitable, some are apt to feel sorry for the animals that live there,” wrote the authors.

“Don’t bother feeling sorry. The truth is that a healthy animal is equipped to tolerate such weather. That is not to say that tough winters don’t impose hardships on the wildlife. Certainly, many die but is all part of an order that is intended to weed out the unfit and to keep the population of species within the limits that the range can support.

“It is a complex, unemotional set-up that favors the species over the individual. The ones that perish are the sick, physically inferior and genetically malsuited. The healthy and resourceful live and the species is the stronger for it,” the authors concluded.

Many animals and birds migrate. Some — woodchucks and black bears — hibernate. Lucky them. The rest just have to endure and most do amazingly well. Deer yard up to conserve body heat and energy, turkeys can stay on a roost for up to ten days without eating a thing. Smaller animals, moles, mice etc. tunnel under the snow. Grouse burrow into the deep snow and sit there warmed by their own body heat in their small enclosure. But if the snow freezes over and a glaze of ice traps the bird inside, they can starve there if it is prolonged.

The number one factor for deciding the condition of any animal or bird species at the end of winter is the available food supply — especially in the critical autumn season. Wild creatures get ready for winter in the fall. If food is plentiful in the fall, animals feed almost constantly. If they have enough, their coats will be prime, they store up layers of fat that will sustain them through lean times, and they are healthy enough then to resist parasites and disease.

Those animals that are undernourished will be the first to weaken during a hard winter and afford easy meals for coyotes, free ranging farm dogs, foxes and hawks. They are the ones that need to be taken in order for the rest to be able to survive. If it sounds harsh, it is. Wild creatures do not have a Humane Society providing for their needs. And Mother Nature is a pretty feisty lady, caring only for the survival of the species, not the comfort of any individual animal or bird.

There has been an ongoing opinion difference about whether or not feeding wildlife in the winter is beneficial so I won’t belabor the point here. But deer, which are browsers mainly, will suffer from too much corn being stacked up which they will gorge on. Then their stomachs can become impacted from this unaccustomed overload with unpleasant results. Often in a harsh winter the Game Commission will cut down smaller trees along forest roads, to offer deer the kind of food — browse — they are used to. This is truly the best way to help hungry deer.

If you are putting out something for turkeys or songbirds remember to put out grit as well. Grit is an essential item for digestion for birds of all kinds.

I have often laughed at the situation a few years ago with the wild turkey near the Pennsylvania town of Eighty Four that found a unique solution to her winter blahs. She adopted a gas station along the highway for her winter palace and terrorized customers and employees alike. She’d accept crackers and other goodies from some folks and chase and peck others who tried to help.

Finally, the Game Commission was called recently to get their bird out of there so they arrived with butterfly nets in tow. How I wish I had been there to get photographs of Game Protectors and deputies chasing after a wild turkey through the deep snow, hoping to nab her in a butterfly net. It must have been hilarious. Turkeys are known to attain speeds of 35 to 40 mph. I don’t think deputies can run that fast, especially in the deep snow.

Finally they did catch her and transported her to a new location. Let us hope that she does not have the instinct of a nuisance bear and show up again in a couple days.