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  • Writer's pictureThe Low Down

Winter swings

Sometimes it’s like Ma Nature hits “shuffle” on her weather app and goes for a snooze. Early winter hasn’t been overly harsh, but we’ve bounced from -20C and heavy snow to rain, then back in the deep freeze over the course of a day. While it can be confusing to shovel snow one day and need an umbrella and crampons the next, freezing rain can really mess things up for wild animals.

Chickadees can’t get past the “frosting” on birch and alder catkins, and nuthatches aren’t happy about heavy icing on pine and spruce cones. Ice-crusted snow makes it hard for grouse, turkeys, and deer to browse. Glaze events are normal, of course, but are more frequent now as compared to historical averages.

It’s obvious that deep snow keeps deer from reaching ground vegetation and hampers their movement. In snow forty or more centimetres deep, their bellies drag and it’s hard for them to raise their legs high enough to step. Add ice to the picture, deer often punch through, making travel even harder and rendering them easy prey for coyotes. Given that our deer population is at least one order of magnitude higher than it once was, heavy predation is the best thing that could happen for the health of our forests.

Many turkeys starve to death in deep snow, and especially in icy conditions. Typically they forage by walking along and scratching to unearth food. In deep snow and/or ice, turkeys seek poplar buds and berries that remain on shrubs and trees like highbush cranberry, hawthorn, sumac and hackberry, but those foods are limited.

Winter conditions affect aquatic life, too. Oxygen enters water through surface contact, and from aquatic plant photosynthesis. Heavy snow on waterways cuts off air-to-water contact and sunlight to submerged plants. Though a few fish die under the ice every year, in winters with prolonged cover, oxygen can become so depleted that large numbers of fish may suffocate.

Yet some creatures depend on snow for survival. Rodents, meadow voles, in particular, fare well in the world under the white, called the “subnivean environment.” They’re safe from birds of prey – their most significant predators and find seeds and vegetation on which to feed. Much to the disappointment of orchardists and homeowners, this can include the bark of small trees. However, at higher elevations, pine martens hunt rodents under the snow.

When the fluffy stuff piles up, snowshoe hares, with their furry oversize feet, have an advantage over predators such as dainty-footed foxes. But with recurring freeze-thaw cycles, this advantage melts away. Ermines and hares wear white during the cold months, but this makes lousy camouflage when fickle weather swaps out the background colour.

I hope Ma Nature soon wakes up all rested and turns off the “app of ice and fire” so we can get on with a proper season.

Val-des-Monts resident Paul Hetzler is a former Cornell Extension Educator. His books Shady Characters and Head of the Class are available on and at Books on Beechwood


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