Brainerd, Minn. — I paid my heating bill a few weeks ago for February. The total I had to fork out was lower than I expected, and definitely less than the amount it would have been had Minnesotan’s experience a more normal February.
That’s all great, right?
Well, not necessarily. What of the person who owns a snowplowing business or sells snowmobiles for a living. The unseasonably warm winter was a downer.
What about wildlife? In general, how does such a warm winter and early spring affect the animals that inhabit our forests and field?
Deer, wild turkeys, squirrels, and cottontail rabbits thrive when there is little or no snow cover. Birders noticed a decline in the number of feathered friends that used their backyard bird feeders, probably because of the lack of snow, warm weather, and thus more accessible natural foods.
But warm spells are not always a good thing for some wildlife.
One example from a few years ago: Following an extended March thaw, the wonderful woodland game bird known as the woodcock had migrated into Minnesota. In most places the ground had thawed, all the better for the long-billed woodcocks to find earthworms, their favorite food.
Then, in early April, a storm dropped several inches of wet snow on much of Minnesota. The temperatures dropped and the snow froze. So did the ground in many places. The cold continued for several days. Many woodcock perished, unable to probe the frozen ground for a meal.
One day in just a few hours of walking in the woods, I found three dead or dying woodcock. One bird was sitting on the frozen snow, and appeared to be in tough shape. Its feathers were fluffed and somewhat bedraggled. The bird’s eyes were open to just slits. Most disturbing was the woodcock’s total disregard for my presence. I took a few photos of the stressed woodcock, and then moved on.
I walked only a short distance and found a dead woodcock on the surface of a frozen pond. The pond had been ice-free before the abrupt weather change.
I returned three hours later to check on the first woodcock, and not surprisingly found it dead. Later, I found a third.
One must assume for a single person to find three dead woodcock in area about 10 acres in size, that a significant number of the worm-eating birds had died. In the following days, I read a number of reports on the internet of other people with similar finds.
Tree swallows also died during that inclement weather. Swallows feed on insects, and insects were nonexistent for days.
Other bird species that had migrated into Minnesota fared better. Why? Take robins. We all know that they, like woodcock, thrive on earthworms, too. But robins are much more versatile birds. Robins flocked to crabapple and other fruit bearing trees to feed during the cold snap, and most were able to hang on until the snow melted and the ground thawed anew.
This spring, birders reported at least some woodcock arrived in Minnesota in early March. We had had several 60 degree days. Then a cold snap sent nighttime temperatures below zero for a few nights. Any damp areas where woodcock might have been finding earthworms froze solid. Although I didn’t find any dead woodcock, the lack of snow would have made the well-camouflaged birds difficult to spot.
So, what’s in store for the remainder of weather this spring? Who knows? After all, there were tornadoes March 6, the earliest ever recorded in the state. Are we in for a devastating April snowstorm and cold snap? Let’s hope not.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at email@example.com.