- By Linda Girardi For The Beacon-News Feb 5, 2011 11:47PM
While life turned topsy-turvey for people during last week’s blizzard, wildlife
managed to survive quite well and return to their food-gathering ways.
“People have a much more difficult time dealing with weather extremes” than the
wild critters around them, said Jack MacRae, naturalist at the Willowbrook
Wildlife Center of the DuPage Forest Preserve District.
Naturalists say wildlife know better how to hunker down during these temporary
spells of wicked weather — but it also helps that they have a thick coat of fur
or down feathers to warm them, as well as a great circulation system.
For birds, squirrels and deer, a blizzard and frigid weather is merely a blip on
the screen. “They’ve been dealing with extremes in the weather for thousands of
years,” MacRae said.
Wild animals are naturally kept warm. “The insulation properties of fur and
feathers are absolutely remarkable — they are very resilient,” MacRae said.
He said wildlife probably began seeking shelter a half-day in advance of the
50-plus mph gusts and foot-plus swath of snow that whipped through the region
last Tuesday and Wednesday.
And once the weather subsided, area naturalists said they began to hear and see
the juncos, chickadees and cardinals, as well as the squirrels and coyote come
out from under to enjoy a meal.
Margaret Gazdacka, naturalist at the Red Oak Nature Center in North Aurora, said
birds were observed feeding at the center’s bird feeders prior to the “big
event,” and a rare sighting of a raccoon searching for food was recorded, as
“It was very quiet in the woods and there were no animal footprints after the
storm,” Gazdacka said. But when the sun began to shine, the birds began singing
and the coyote began roaming about.
“It is amazing how the wildlife endure the weather — we can learn from them,”
Gazdacka said groundhogs and bats are the area’s true hibernators.
“Their body temperature drops to near freezing and their heart beats about only
four times a minute,” Gazdacka said.
Other wildlife stayed tucked away in Mother Nature’s warm shelters during the
peak of the blizzard.
The fox squirrels and gray squirrels retreat to their nests or occupy a
woodpecker’s vacated hole in a tree, while female coyotes return to their den
and male coyotes look for cover elsewhere. Foxes exhibit the same behavior.
The birds that winter in northern Illinois cuddle against one another within the
lower limbs and near the lower trunk of pine trees for protection from the wind.
The deer nestle in the comfort of soft twigs and leaves in the warmest spot of
Cottontail rabbits have a difficult time in deeper snow and tend to hunker down,
but occasionally do peek out for food sources, such as the bark of your shrubs
and seed at your bird feeders.
“Coyote have a natural thick coat,” said Gazdacka, who spotted a coyote treading
across the Fox River Thursday afternoon.
She said mankind has provided the duck and geese with year-round habitat at
detention ponds and bubbler fountains. “The ducks cling together as best
friends,” she said
Jerry Hope, a veteran bird watcher and member of the Kane County Audubon
Society, observes the birds that flock to his cluster of pine trees where they
form a bundle of feathered friends.
“They will rotate places — the birds in the middle of the bundle will take turns
sitting on the outside. As many as 30 birds will cuddle together to stay warm
during severe cold weather. They hunker down and won’t leave until the storm is
over,” Hope said.
“A group of birds can huddle near the trunk of the tree — it is amazing how warm
it is in a spruce tree. In fact, that kind of shelter is one of the things they
teach you to look for in survival training,” Hope said.
Richard Velders, a retired Plano veterinarian who volunteers at the Fox Valley
Wildlife Center in Elburn, blesses all of those who think of the wildlife during
such severe winter conditions.
Velders said there probably is a slightly higher attrition rate among wildlife
during winter storms but mammals and birds are very adaptable.
“The birds naturally fluff their feathers to insulate themselves and have a
remarkable ability to withstand the cold weather, especially when they can
huddle together to generate body heat,” Velders said.
Coyote and fox are similar to Alaska’s sled dogs, he said.
“Coyote and fox literally can curl themselves up in the snow and create enough
body warmth with their coat to survive as long as they are healthy and getting
adequate food,” he said.
“We noticed on a nature walk a couple of weeks ago how the deer brushed away the
snow to get down to the leaves and nested on a bed of leaves for a level of
protection, but their coat also protects them.”
Velders said wildlife have tremendous circulation in their feet and appendages
so it is very rare for them to contract frost bite.
“We should be so lucky to protect ourselves as the wildlife do,” Velders said.
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