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Surviving the winter

January 19, 2014
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

What a difference 50 degrees can make. As I write this, it was only a week ago that the thermometer was reading 50 degrees colder at minus 20 degrees!

For some folks - car batteries gave up the ghost, water pipes froze, and furnaces said enough was enough. But we made it.

It was the same with Iowa wildlife, too. Every part of living in those extreme conditions was more difficult for them, as well. And they suffered additional winter stress, but most survived, most but not all. The extreme temperatures that we experienced took out the weakened representatives of the species.

The very old and the very young, the injured or the sick. That's how it works. That's survival of the fittest.

For the healthy, the extreme, three-day subzero stretch is not in itself especially harmful to wildlife. If there is good winter cover close to a good food source then most wildlife will be just fine.

But good winter cover is hard to come by around here. Shrubs, conifers, cattails and other thick vegetation provide cover for wildlife when snow obliterates grassy habitat. Take a drive around and while you do, take note of the "waste" areas that disappeared just in the last year or two as more property was pushed into production.

You might find it interesting that pheasants, perhaps the most vulnerable of the state's game species to severe winter weather, seldom freeze to death. According to Todd Bogenschutz, DNR upland game biologist, there is little correlation between winter temperatures and pheasant mortality. A much better indicator, he said, is the number of days that snow covers the pheasants' habitat. Heavy snow buries much of the vegetation pheasants and other small game animals depend on to protect them from the elements and from predators. The longer they have to live against a white background, the more vulnerable to predators they become.

As long as ice or mounting snow does not cut off their food supply, that's about the best that we can wish for wildlife right now. So, the warm snap that we experienced a few days ago was a true blessing. Waste grain has been exposed and made available again to wildlife. It was just what the doctor ordered.

A lot of winter remains.. It might bring a lot more snow and cold. For us, that means a lot more shoveling and jumping car batteries. For wildlife, it could mean life or death. But at least for now, they've drawn a good card.



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