Winter can be hard on wild creatures

By Larry Dablemont
    During very cold and vicious winter weather, wild creatures need much more food than they need during the mild stretches that we love to see.
    The acorns that were as thick as I have seen them in a long time, become scarce in February and March, so we are coming upon the lean time of the year, the bottleneck that wildlife species must pass through before the arrival of spring, when there is replenishment and abundance once again.

    If January and February are mild, and ice is scarce, wildlife survival is good, and reproduction in the spring is much better than normal. If there is ice and snow and extreme cold, some wildlife species suffer more than others. That's why bird feeders are so valuable this time of year. I can't keep mine filled.
    Those who feel compassion for wildlife in winter must be careful not to overdo it. In our region, bobwhite quail suffer more than any other species, and it's always a temptation to feed them. Trouble is, feeding quail sometimes concentrates them in one place, where they become dependent on the handout. Then they are too easily found by predators, especially house cats, and can be wiped out because of that vulnerability.
    If you want to feed quail, don't create a regular feeding area, scatter the food where cover is heaviest, and don't feed them near a road. Back in the late fifties, during periods of prolonged snow and ice the conservation departments gave rural mail carriers sacks of food to put out where they saw coveys of quail. Birds are often drawn to rural roads because they can find grit and small gravel there which they need in their crops to grind up seed and grain. Most of the mail carriers did their job so well, that in little time, the coveys were there waiting for the feed, and many coveys were wiped out by pot-shooters who couldn't resist the temptation. The program was ended when one mail carrier was caught with his shotgun, and a sackful of quail in his trunk.
    Wild turkey suffer if the ice is heavy, but they have strong legs, and can usually scratch through heavy snow to find food. When they are fed scattered grain in the winter, they are not as subject to predation, but they are just as vulnerable to poachers. We are now at a time when wild turkey populations are at critically low numbers and scattering corn where there are known flocks really helps them.
    Deer and rabbits are able to survive a hard winter better in our area because of the diversity of food sources for both. Deer can browse on plants above the snow, and rabbits eat bark when times are hard.
     Squirrels may not remember where all the acorns have been stored, but when there is a prolonged period of low temperatures, both fox and gray squirrels go into brief periods of hibernation in hollow trees and survive well because of that.
    The bobcat, fox and coyote may find weakened and dying wildlife in the winter, but this time of year is no easier on them than it is on the prey species, because they need more food when the cold is intense. And most of the year, the fox and coyote, and hawk and owl, feed mainly on small ground mammals, voles, mice, and rats.
     When winter hits in full force, many small underground species will hibernate, and become unavailable. At such times, rabbits and quail are more intensely hunted, and the wild turkey is more vulnerable to bobcats and great horned owls, which are at the highest population levels I have ever seen. January and February sees a great loss in wild turkey through predation. They are roosting on branches where they stand out like summer buzzards on a gravel bar.
    There are certain Ozark plants that help small game and birds to survive. Sumac and cedar hold berries above the snow for an emergency food supply, though neither are eagerly sought when other foods are available. Of course, in the Ozarks, the acorn is the most important overall food for all wildlife. Almost everything eats acorns or depends on something that does. It seems that the best way to predict wildlife survival and spring reproductive success is to look at the availability of acorns in the fall and the period of time they can be found.
    But if you feel sorry for birds and small game in the winter, remember that cover is just as necessary as food. Leave thickets of sumac and cedar on your land, and create brush piles around them, and you'll help small game and wild birds even more than you would by creating a winter feeding trough. I notice that in Arkansas, the Game and Fish Commission has declared war on the red cedar (Juniper) in the Ozarks. If you want wildlife to survive the winter, ignore that. Those folks do some stupid things. In both Missouri and Arkansas I witness the occasional burning of cover and nesting habitat in the spring.
    Remember that stands of cedar keep wildlife protected from brutal cold winds and snow, and those berries they produce aren’t the greatest food for birds and quail but they are survival nutrition during harsh, snowy winters. I know… I see it on my place where cedar thickets in February are home to a covey of quail and several cottontails and a variety of wild birds.
    I need help distributing our publication entitled “The Truth About the Missouri Department of Conservation.” If you want to help, call me at 417-777-5227.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Larry Dablemont is an outdoor writer from Bolivar, Mo.