As much as your kids may love them, snow days mean something else for wildlife forced to make a living outdoors 365 days a year. Blizzard days of snowfall coupled with intense winds make for a challenging time for many wildlife species. Intense cold merely adds to the stress level for animals. Those animals which remain active throughout the winter - deer, birds, and rabbits for example - seem to have an uncanny sense of forecasting an impending storm. Most likely, they are sensing the dropping barometric pressure or other atmospheric cues. (It's a little like your Aunt Edna's trick knee that can always forecast rain.) Often, animals will be particularly active in the hours before a storm hits, filling their belly and then finding deep shelter.
There are many species oblivious to the vagaries of winter weather. The hibernating mammals sleep through the whole thing. Most amphibians and reptiles also hibernate or else enter a hibernation-like deep torpor underground or at the bottom of marshes and lakes; they don't care how hard the wind blows. Insects also pass through the winter immobile, usually in the form of an egg or larva ready to emerge with the warmth of spring. Like certain of our shrewd senior citizens, most of our migratory birds simply head south and escape it all.
That leaves those animals which share a Minnesota winter with us in an active state. They are the ones forced to find survival techniques. Intense cold, even without snow and wind, adds to the caloric requirements of wildlife. During cold snaps, many animals spend extra time each day eating to allow them to stay warm. Small birds feed voraciously much of the day, allowing them to survive the long nights. Rabbits may hunker down for a day during the worst storms, but will feed very actively as soon as they can move. Tree squirrels, famous for hoarding seeds and nuts, sleep through the nasty spells and emerge on sunny days to find their hidden feasts. In the end, most animals can find enough food to survive.
Winter survival is mostly based on having adequate shelter. Pheasants and deer both frequent dense stands of cattails in dry or frozen marshes. The heavy cover not only reduces the wind chill, but it also acts as an insulating blanket, allowing more of the animal's body heat to remain in the occupied space. A ditch bank or thin tree grove may shelter pheasants during the pleasant days of fall and through an early light snow, but those pheasants are doomed if they can't find serious winter cover for a blizzard.
As with most things in nature, snow and cold has its winners and losers. For a mouse, the snow provides an insulating roof and shelter from owls. For a fox, the cold means extra calories are needed just when the mice disappear under the snow. If the snow remains fluffy, the fox can hear, smell, and capture mice through the snow, but crusted snow leaves the mice secure. The same wind which can freeze a pheasant in poor cover can scour snow from a crop field, exposing food sources for other pheasants which found secure winter cover. The natural world is an endless series of complex, intertwined layers, difficult for humans to peel apart and thus difficult for us to completely understand. Harsh winter weather adds additional layers to that complexity and, for the animals in question, changes the equation of how they survive.
Featured WPA: Mosquito Ranch Waterfowl Production Area, Traverse County
Mosquito Ranch WPA enjoys one of the best names of any waterfowl production area in the prairie states. While one can well imagine a frustrated pioneer coming up with the source of the name, shallow marshes are not the only or even the main source of the pesky mosquitoes which plague us in wet summers. Mosquito Ranch WPA, five miles east/northeast of Browns Valley, includes 752 acres. Right across the road is the 1250-acre Robinhood WPA. Together, they create a 2000-acre block of absolutely premier waterfowl habitat. Besides ducks, geese, and swans, Mosquito Ranch WPA is home to pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse, and the occasional prairie chicken. This is a dependable spot to enjoy a spectacular spring waterfowl migration. It is no spot to be in the midst of a blizzard, but a traveler on a pleasant winter day can find tracks and other evidence of wildlife surviving and even thriving through the long, cold Minnesota winter.
For a map of Mosquito Ranch WPA or any other WPA in the Morris district, go to http://midwest. fws.gov/Morris.