Published January 07, 2011, 12:00 AM

Wildlife adapts to snow, below-zero temperatures

Snow enthusiasts are thoroughly enjoying the winter as the white stuff came early and is being replenished inches at a time on a regular basis.

By: Pat Miller, Bemidji Pioneer

Snow enthusiasts are thoroughly enjoying the winter as the white stuff came early and is being replenished inches at a time on a regular basis.

Currently the area front yards, woods and fields are blanketed with almost 20 inches of powder while the piles along the edges of the roads created by the snowplows are shoulder-high in many locations.

The thermometer also indicates that the Bemidji area is in the throes of an old-fashioned winter as it dipped to -25 earlier this week and daytime highs have struggled to reach double-digits above zero.

If the trend continues there could be some negative effects on the area wildlife but, at least for now, the deer and birds which stay all winter are coping well.

“We’re not worried about the deer herd, at least not yet,” said Bemidji Area DNR Assistant Wildlife Manager Blane Klemek. “This is winter and this is northern Minnesota and the deer adapt. Right not we are not at a critical point with the winter severity index (WSI).”

The WSI is a gauge DNR officials use to measure a winter’s severity and how it might impact wildlife.

A number is added to the WSI for each day the temperature reaches below zero and each day 15 or more inches of snow is on the ground.

As of Tuesday the WSI in the Bemidji area was 20. At this time a year ago the WSI was 17 and by winter’s end it reached 111.

“When the WSI gets close to 100 things can get tough on deer,” Klemek said. “Right now a WSI of 20 is about what we would expect (for the Bemidji area) and we’re not concerned. The deer are doing fine. But there is much more winter on the way and if things progress like they are going now, winter could become a problem for the deer.”

Deer enter the winter more than ready to handle cold and excessive snow. As December turns into January and January into February, however, the fat reserves can be exhausted and battling cold and difficult travel conditions can take their toll.

“Nature equips the deer to survive winter,” Klemek said. “Often, however, it’s the last part of the winter and early spring that can tip the scale.

“By then the deer are stressed and an early-spring storm can be too much for the deer to survive. But right now the deer are doing fine and we aren’t worried about them.”

Ruffed grouse love winters with heavy, consistent and fluffy snow and to date the winter has been perfect for their survival.

“Right now we have the kind of conditions that grouse thrive in,” Klemek said.

In order to escape the cold and become less of a target to avian predators, grouse bury into the snow. A year in which the snow is encrusted by ice can be hazardous to the birds because they cannot penetrate the shield and, consequently, cannot take advantage of the warmth the snow can provide.

But this winter the snow conditions are perfect.

“I read once that there can be as much as a 50-degree difference in the air temperature and the temperature inside a snow roost,” Klemek said. “When it’s 25 below-zero outside it can be above 32 degrees in the roost.”

The non-game wildlife species also are handling the winter patterns in stride, according to DNR Regional Non-Game Specialist Katie Haws.

“Wildlife can be impacted by rain and ice like the weather that the Twin Cities experienced last week,” Haws said. “But as far as what is happening locally, I don’t see any evidence of hardships so far.”

Songbirds can find ample food to sustain themselves during the winter but they will also readily accept supplemental menu items provided by bird feeders.

“There are 347 bird species in Minnesota and the ones which stay during this time of the year are well adapted to winter,” Haws said.

Trees and shrubs which offer buds and fruit are especially attractive to the winter birds and other native residents.

“I know of some spots in Blackduck where the crab apple trees are being utilized by the deer,” Haws said. “All shrubs and young trees with buds are being utilized as food sources.”

Among the bird species currently visiting feeders are pine grosebeaks, goldfinches, chickadees, redpolls and nuthatches but some birders are reporting a shortage of pine siskins compared to what they normally see at their feeders at this time of the year.

“It has been a normal winter for the birds in terms of the species and the number of birds,” Haws said. “We are seeing all of the usual species at the feeders but we are not seeing as many pine siskins as usual, at least not yet.”

It is likely that the siskins will find their way to the feeders before long, especially the feeders that include thistle seed.

“A good feeder that is continually stocked will pull in birds from at least one-quarter of a mile away,” Haws said, adding that a feeding station should include suet, sunflower seeds and thistle seeds.

“The more consistent you are in making sure your feeders are filled, the more birds you will have,” Haws added.

pmiller@bemidjipioneer.com

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