MuskogeePhoenix.com, Muskogee, OK

January 24, 2014

COLUMN: Cold snap’s impact on area wildlife is minimal

By John Kilgore
Phoenix Outdoors Columnist

— According to some meteorologists, much of the U.S. seems to be caught up in some type of a Polar Vortex.   I will be the first to admit I'm not well-versed when it comes to weather forecasting nor the terms used to define it.  I'm thankful and blessed to be able to come inside and prop my feet up next to a warm, cozy fire.

But I began wondering about the cold and its effect on critters so I called Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation regional big game biologist Craig Endicott to get his take.

“Most mammals in our region can readily adapt to the cold and bitter temperatures,” said Endicott.

Mother Nature has a way of prompting animals, such as whitetail deer, to seek out areas where perhaps they normally wouldn't go.  They venture out in search of a high-octane food source such as corn, milo, and ,although it's not their preferred dish, they will even resort to sumac berries.

Jerry Shaw, big game biologist for the Wildlife Department, said in a press release a few years ago, that deer are not only physically equipped to withstand the current conditions, but they can also find the food they need to stay healthy.

“Deer are strong enough that they can get through the snow,” Shaw said, noting that deer will still have their winter coat, which includes hollow individual hairs that help them stay insulated from the cold.

They also are able to find thermal cover that protects them from wind and the elements. Additionally, deer are able to dig down into the snow to find food as well as find browse above the snow.

According to Shaw, deer struggle less with snow than when freezing rains coat the ground and food sources with a layer of impenetrable ice.  Upland birds such as quail can find food as well according to Doug Schoeling, upland game biologist for the Wildlife Department, in a previous press release.

Rod Smith, southwest region wildlife supervisor for the Wildlife Department, has said that although birds have to expend more energy searching out bare patches where food can be found, they are still “remarkably adapted to survive short periods of extreme cold.”

Smith noted that birds such as wild turkeys and others have circulatory systems that are effective at keeping their bodies warm, as well as down feathers that protect them from the elements. Smith said that humans may think of birds in cold weather as essentially sleeping in bags of down feathers.

An article in this month's Turkey Country magazine suggests that we in the Midwest leave stubble in agricultural fields and sow cover crops like winter wheat or peas to provide browse.     They also recommended converting agricultural fields into grasslands by seeding in late January through early March before a heavy snow. This will protect the seeds from mice and other animals. Planting soybeans the year prior to this practice sets the nitrogen grasses need to flourish.

Raptors, such as red-tailed hawks, winter in Oklahoma in part because of the limited snow cover throughout the state, which makes it easier to hunt for rodents and other prey.

Melynda Hickman, wildlife diversity biologist for the Wildlife Department, has said periods of several days of dense snow cover are not a cause of concern for raptors, but that extended periods would likely force such birds to migrate further south.  However, other species such as smaller birds may become more susceptible prey to raptors because of stress put on their bodies to survive the cold.

 Reptiles, amphibians, and wintering bats have long since burrowed into mud, dens, leaf litter or other protective cover and entered into states of hibernation or “torpor,” which is a slowing of the metabolism and circulatory system functions to survive cold weather.

Some amphibians found in Oklahoma even have highly specialized blood to help the animal weather the elements.  Tree frogs, for example, have a component in their blood similar to anti-freeze used to protect vehicles in cold conditions. This keeps their blood from freezing and allows them to survive the winter buried deep in leaf litter.

Though weather can and sometimes does have negative effects on nature, wildlife found in Oklahoma is remarkably resilient to harsh conditions.   

John Kilgore's outdoor column runs Fridays in the Phoenix. You may contact him with news or other information at (918) 348-9431 or at jkilgoreoutdoors@yahoo.com.