Wildlife in winter: It's been a tough one for Minnesota's critters

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 17, 2014 - 6:21 PM

It’s been a tough year for wildlife in Minnesota. Here’s a look at how different species are faring during the final days of an extreme season.

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Boreal chickadee in snow.

Photo: Jim Williams, Special to the Star Tribune

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One of the longest, coldest, snowiest winters on record is nearing an end, and for most Minnesota wildlife, it can’t come soon enough.

That critters large and small — from whitetail deer to tiny chickadees — can survive 30-below-zero temperatures, bitter 40 miles-per-hour winds and mountains of snow is nothing less than amazing. Even to wildlife biologists.

“You wonder how anything can survive,’’ said Carrol Henderson, Department of Natural Resources nongame wildlife program supervisor. “It gives you great appreciation for the adaptability of wildlife. It’s a real miracle.’’

How do they do it?

Well, not all do.

Some deer, pheasants, turkeys, wolves, songbirds and other animals die each winter, for a variety of reasons. This winter likely has taken a higher toll, though no one really knows for certain. Animals die and are consumed, usually in obscurity.

“Winter mortality is a natural thing,’’ said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife program manager. “So people shouldn’t be overly alarmed, because that’s just the nature of the beast.’’

This despite efforts by humans to help. Back-yard bird feeders help some songbirds. An emergency deer feeding program has been launched in northern Minnesota — the first in 18 years — and scores of individuals are feeding deer and pheasants, hoping to help them through a long, brutal winter.

But wildlife biologists say those efforts have little overall impact on wildlife populations. And Minnesota’s animals are built to withstand Minnesota winters.

While wildlife officials aren’t concerned yet about the overall effect of this winter on wildlife, lingering winter weather in March is a concern because many species are stressed. A late blizzard or ice storm can deal a coup de grâce.

“It’s been a tough winter,’’ Merchant said. “Not as bad as 1996-97, but it’s close to that. And we could still have a lot of winter to go. This is really the crunch time now.’’

Here’s a look at how some critters are doing:

Whitetail deer

“Deer are designed for this,’’ said Gino D’Angelo, DNR deer researcher in Madelia, Minn. “They have evolved to endure Minnesota winters. Otherwise we wouldn’t have any.’’

In the summer, their hair is solid, but their winter coat is hollow to provide more insulation. And in the fall, when food is plentiful, deer build up fat reserves in their bone marrow, on their internal organs, and between their skin and muscle to sustain them over the winter.

That fat near the skin “is like our Thinsulate,’’ D’Angelo said.

Unlike some other animals, deer also slow their metabolism in the winter to conserve energy, meaning they don’t eat as much. They burn the fat near their skin first, then the fat near their organs and finally, if stressed, the fat from their marrow.

D’Angelo said it’s rare to see large numbers of deer starve to death. Young and old deer are usually the first to succumb. And weakened deer are more susceptible to predators, such as wolves and coyotes. But the longer the winter lasts, the more fat reserves they burn.

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