So you think you have it hard this winter with two feet of snow in the yard and an iced-over driveway? Try being a bat … or a fox … or a bird of prey.
As tough as this season’s heavy snowfall and cold temperatures have been on you, it’s been harder on certain species of wildlife that have to survive in it.
True, large hibernating critters such as black bear couldn't care less how much snow has piled up over their dens. By the time the state’s estimated 300 to 500 bears come out in April, conditions in Connecticut’s forests will have moderated and there should be plenty of forage. Beavers and muskrats, too, do OK in tough weather, since they put up food supplies in the fall, said Paul Rego, a wildlife biologist with the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. He is stationed at the DEP office in Burlington.
Smaller mammals, such as fox or coyotes, can have a tougher time finding food when the snow is deep, Rego said. Lately, at least, it has crusted over enough to make walking on it easy. When smaller mammals they like to eat are hard to find, they will look for roadkill, and, in the case of fox, are also willing to eat some plants. Coyotes, because they are larger, will also prey on deer, Rego said.
The deer, at least, caught a lucky break this fall, according to Andrew Labonte, a DEP deer expert based in Franklin. “Fortunately,” he said, “we had a really good acorn crop this fall.” The abundance of a principal food enabled many deer to build excellent fat reserves to carry them through the winter, he said.
The deer have had trouble moving around in the deep snow, of course, so they have tended to move less and, when they do, use established trails in larger numbers, Labonte said. He has had many reports of large groups of deer, and even one in southern Connecticut of 50 to 100. (He said he takes that one with a grain of salt.)
Now that the weather appears to be breaking a little, he said, the deer are becoming more mobile and, because it is easy, are gravitating toward streets and roads. The result is a higher amount of roadkill than in other years.
Because the heavy and persistent snow cover is making small mammals hard to find, road-kill is also more of a food source for large birds this winter – and it is taking a heavy toll. Grace Krick of Deep River, vice president of a bird-of-prey rehabilitation center in Killingworth named A Place Called Hope, said the winter has been “really tough” on raptors – owls and hawks, for example -- a lot of which have been starving.
The center has had an upturn in the number of injured birds, Krick said, because more than usual have been getting hit by cars as they feed on road-kill in the streets. “They are so hungry that they are not as vigilant as they should be,” she said.
Veteran raptor rehabilitator Mary-Beth Kaeser, of Horizon Wings in Ashford, has observed the same phenomenon. Of the six birds now in her care, “half of them were hit by cars.” She said an owl can hear a mouse running under a foot or two of snow, but when the snow is crusted over, can’t reach it. The birds she’s seeing are “emaciated,” she said. Younger birds, in particular, are having a tough go of it this year, partly because they are less experienced hunters.
In her 26 years as a rehabilitator, she said, “this has been one of my busiest winters.”
For waterfowl, too, “it’s pretty desperate out there,” Krick said. There have been a number of broken wings and legs caused when the birds land on shiny, icy driveways they mistake for water. The number and size of open water areas where waterfowl rest and feed is smaller this year.
Smaller songbirds tend to do a little better because people put out feed for them, Krick said.
Bats, on the other hand, have not been doing so well.
Christine Abikoff of Ashford, a licensed bat and small mammal rehabilitator, said she’s seen more distressed bats this winter, and not because of the white nose syndrome that has already been decimating the Connecticut bat population.
Abikoff said that she has seen many more cases of hibernating bats that have dislodged from their winter perches and fallen. “They are dehydrated,” she said, but was unsure as to the cause. Occasionally bats emerge from hibernation in order to drink, she said, but this year places to do that are few. The bats will not eat snow, she said.