Ice can put big chill on animal life


January 23, 1994|By PETER BAKER

In midweek, while the coastal plain in Maryland was covered with a relatively thin layer of ice and snow and beset by temperatures that dropped a few degrees below zero, in the state's western mountains the snow had mounted to more than 2 feet in some places and the temperature at Cumberland had reached an all-time recorded low of minus-30 degrees.

In the peak of daylight, the surface of the snow melted slightly, the water seeping into the upper layers of the snow beneath. As daylight faded into sub-zero nights, the melted surface and the upper layers of wet snow beneath froze again, with each cycle of freeze and thaw thickening a bridge of icy crust over thousands of acres of feeding habitat for deer, turkey and other wildlife.

"The cold itself doesn't bother [the animals]," said Joshua Sandt, director of the Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Division. "What is bothering them is the ice on top of the snow."

The icy crust can prevent even the larger animals such as deer from breaking through to the feed that lies beneath the snow, and those animals that expend the energy to dig through the ice and snow may be waging a war of diminishing returns.

"If it doesn't warm up this weekend, then I would say we might be in trouble [in the western part of the state]," Sandt said.

Deer and turkeys, Sandt said, can go three or four weeks under these extreme conditions without encountering major losses to their populations -- unless there are extenuating circumstances.

"With that crust on top, the dogs can run across the top of the ice and run the deer down," Sandt said. "It is not a big problem usually, but we have had a problem in previous years when we have had similar-type conditions."

Maryland's Wildlife Division has never documented a significant deer kill caused by weather, Sandt said. But each year there are cases of deer being killed by dogs, especially when deer, which have poor footing on slick, hard surfaces, are surprised in the open.

"A lot of times it is people's pets[that do the killing]," Sandt said. "They just don't realize that [the dogs] are leaving their houses at nighttime and out running around. They will pack up or work in pairs."

But for the most part, Sandt said, birds and game animals adapt well to whatever the weather throws at them.

"Most of your birds can still find a few insects or seeds on vegetation above the snow," Sandt said. "They will move either into the woods, where they can get things like holly berries, or they will go into cutover areas where you have weeds with seed heads above the snow."

Many animals will move to the southern slopes, where the sun provides the most heat first and where the hillsides will first develop bare spots. In many cases, the active, warm-blooded mammals will find a sheltered area with good sunlight and bed down to wait out the weather.

"Evolutionary-wise they have learned that when the weather gets real nasty, they are actually going to save more energy by being still all day long than they are by trying to go out looking for food," Sandt said.

"Even if they find food the energy they expended doing that is probably going to be greater than the energy they will gain from feeding. So they just stay put."

Turkeys, for example, Sandt said, may stay in a tree for a week at a time when the weather is extreme.

"What they will try to do is get down into the hollows, and they will go into conifers when the weather gets real bad," Sandt said. "That gives them some protection and they just fluff their feathers up and sit it out."

Turkeys present somewhat more of a problem for wildlife managers than deer do, Sandt said, but turkeys still can go three weeks or so without a negative impact on their population.

"If it warms up this weekend and it starts melting so that we get some bare hillsides, then they will pull through without any problems," Sandt said. "I am sure we are going to lose some, but we lose some every winter."

In such harsh conditions there always is the temptation to put out feed, and while DNR does not recommend feeding wild animals, Sandt said there are some guidelines that should be followed.

"This is one of the things that I know people want to do -- especially if they have [wild] turkeys that they know are in the back of the farm or something like that -- and the best thing to use is whole kernel corn or cob corn and then scatter it and never put it in the same place twice."

Spreading the feed and changing locations will decrease the chance of predators keying in on the feeding locations. It also will lessen the chance of a diseased animal mixing at feeding time and infecting the animals around it.

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