The Sportsman’s Corner: Baby, it’s cold outside!

  • Waterfowl will seek open water in the winter, like these mallard ducks coming in for a skidding landing on the ice. Staff file photo/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 1/13/2022 2:49:21 PM
Modified: 1/13/2022 2:48:29 PM

This week’s weather has been bitter cold. Not the 15 below zero we experienced a couple of times in the past five years and not the 23 below that Steve Piragis enjoyed as he was out walking the dog in near his home in Ely, Minnesota, but very cold, nonetheless. Combined with the wind, it was uncomfortable for us humans as we made our way about bundled up and blasting the heater in our vehicles.

Wildlife of all kinds have adapted over time to survive all the extreme temperatures and developed patterns of behavior to allow them to make it through and evolve. Last week, this space mentioned the risk that feeding wildlife, particularly whitetail deer, creates. Let us look at how the cold weather impacts some of the species commonly found in the North Quabbin region.

White-tailed deer, which are found in Massachusetts and across most of the United States, are the widest-ranging ungulate in the Americas, from as far south as Bolivia to as far north as southern Canada. To cover such diverse territory and climates, white-tailed deer have a variety of adaptations and behaviors, including those that allow them to survive harsh cold winter weather that is common here in New England.

Deer physically prepare for the winter by better insulating their bodies. In the fall, deer gradually trade their summer hair coat for a winter one, which consists of thicker, longer, and darker hairs called guard hairs, while also growing in a much thicker undercoat. This winter coat absorbs more sunlight and traps more body heat than the summer coat and provides an extraordinary amount of protection from the cold. Deer also have oil-producing glands in their skin that help make their hair water repellent, which is especially valuable in the snow. For further insulation, their bodies also begin to retain more fat in layers during the fall.

During cold weather, deer become less active, which allows them to save energy and eat less. They may not move during extreme cold and rely on their fat reserves. They choose to stay in sheltered areas to rest and eat, such as stands of conifers, which help provide some wind protection. In winter, diet changes occur. In addition to eating their usual diet of twigs, stems, grasses and other plants wherever they typically would find them, whitetails also make a change as well by supplementing these foods with higher-calorie foods such as nuts, fruits and even mushrooms.

Wild turkeys do quite well in the cold but deep snow can be a serious problem. They will stay roosted for periods when foraging is difficult. Flocks work together to open up areas on the ground, particularly on southern exposures, where they can find food sources like acorns and other seeds.

Waterfowl will seek open water and migration can be in short trips looking for open water. Black ducks studies on the New Jersey coast, while flying could see 80 miles and locate flocks of ducks feeding where there was a viable food source. Canada geese have evolved to migrate only as far as they need to find food and open water.

Ruffed grouse are interesting. They eat the buds of many common trees and also winter hanging fruits and berries. They have been known to dive into deep snow and use the insulation. Some may have experienced a grouse bursting out of the powder snow. Once, while walking as a kid after a snow, a grouse flushed from the snow and scared me half to death! Birds’ feathers are insulation, but conifer cover is important to songbirds like chickadees, and you should make sure you have some on your property to provide wind relief at night. Your bird feeders are used more during the cold because birds need more energy to keep warm as it gets colder. Suet is also popular in the cold.

Reptiles like frogs and turtles burrow into the lake bed to survive winter cold. Drawdowns are controversial as some suggest that survival of those creatures is compromised when water levels are lowered, exposing the lake or pond bed to freezing cold. There is no definitive research at this time to either prove or disprove that argument. My experience at White Pond, which has a permitted drawdown, does not seem to see any difference in the number of reptiles over time.

Black bears, of course, have the ideal solution to extreme cold. Hibernation places them in a state where it really does not matter how cold it gets or how long it stays cold. Cubs are born in the den and have a safe warm place and food supply right there until the arrival of spring, when they can leave the den and go out foraging.

As for humans, we have so much available to us that we can enjoy the outdoors in comfort. This writer now owns an Eskimo Fatfish insulated shelter. It may be overkill, but I can’t wait to try it! Stay warm, my friends!

Mike Roche is a retired teacher who has been involved in conservation and wildlife issues his entire life. He has written the Sportsman’s Corner since 1984 and has served as advisor to the Mahar Fish’N Game Club, Counselor and Director of the Massachusetts Conservation Camp, has been a Massachusetts Hunter Education Instructor for over 40 years and is a licensed New York hunting guide. He can be reached at mikeroche3@msn.com.


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