By John Blankenship
It’s a late winter night. Bright stars twinkle in a game of hide-and-seek with clouds hovering like homeless spirits on the horizon. A gentle breeze stirs the leafless oaks and maples.
Somehow, you can feel a change coming in the weather: a quiet snow begins to fall. The wind floats the snowflakes through the cold, crisp air.
The wind grows stronger. You hear the rustle of the branches. You feel the snow pelt your face as it swirls faster and faster through the January sky.
Now the snow is making slapping sounds as the wind hurls it against the swaying pines. Branches creak and crackle. Twigs and limbs snap off, strike the ground below and are covered by the deepening snow.
There is whiteness all around you as the blizzard fills the sky. It snows and it snows. You need to find shelter, a safe place.
Both humans and wildlife share environments and experience some of the same natural phenomena, according to Larry Berry, a retired DNR game biologist who now spends a portion of his time creating habitat and planting food sources for wildlife near his home in Fayette County.
“People and wildlife co-exist, and sometimes experience the same natural conditions,” Berry says. “During a snowstorm, most people, pets, wildlife need to seek shelter.”
People tend to seek cover in their homes when the weather gets rough. But what about the other creatures who might be feeling the same stormy weather?
Some animals and birds in cold weather do pretty much the same thing as humans. They seek a safe shelter that offers a measure of comfort and safety until the storm passes.
Others carry their own protection around with them.
The wild turkey is a prime example. “The fowl is particularly well-insulated against cold weather because of the large number of feathers it has,” explains Berry.
“The biggest threat to turkeys and other game birds, when deep snow is present, is from predators, such as foxes, bobcats, hawks and owls. This is a natural occurring event and does not pose a threat to the turkey population.”
When coping with winter weather, some mammals have adopted a survival technique copied by many humans.
“They stay in the house,” Berry says. “Some of the best examples in the Mountain State are the black bear, groundhog, gray squirrel and chipmunk.
“Fat and sassy after consuming many pounds of acorns, these critters find a safe den, go to sleep and wait out the effects of Old Man Winter.”
Berry notes that other mammals restrict their activity during periods of bitter cold and deep snow.
Although not sleeping through the winter, they spend more time in the confines of dens located in hollow trees, rock cliffs or hollow logs. These dens are often lined with the animals’ own fur, leaves, grasses and twigs.
Some mammals even store food within the den area.
But what about animals such as the whitetail deer, those creatures that do not use a den?
“Nature has equipped them with their own form of insulated underwear,” Berry explains. “As most deer hunters know, whitetail hair is hollow and it traps and holds body heat extremely well. This insulation enables deer to withstand even the coldest West Virginia winters.”
Snowfall accumulations, therefore, are seldom a threat to deer in the Mountain State.
Only in the higher elevations, where snowfall may persist for months at a time, do deer encounter difficulty in finding food. In years such as this, when fall mast crops were abundant, deer build up thick fat reserves that they slowly draw from during winter months.
“Only in years that combine poor mast production, bitter cold temperatures and deep snow are deer threatened,” Berry says. “Under healthy populations, there is enough food to go around.”
The retired game biologist adds that deer management programs in West Virginia are designed to prevent overpopulated conditions from happening. “And rather than spending time and money on winter feeding programs for wild game, it’s more important to develop habitat that provides the necessary food and cover during winter months,” he says.
Top o’ the morning!
— Blankenship is a columnist for The Register-Herald. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org