Mother Nature has not spared animals in this harsh winter
If you think this winter has been hard on you and your family, consider the owl. Or the deer. Or the bobcat.
Just as we humans have had to adjust to the heavy amounts of snow, ice and bitter cold visited upon the region, so, too, has the state's wildlife. After a long run of mild winters, some bird and animal species are struggling with this hardcore New England winter, said Gregg Dancho, director of Connecticut's Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport.
"For the wild population, this is about as survivalist as it gets," he said. "You have a problem with animals without enough resources out there. There is the potential for a lot of starvation."
That potential hasn't escaped the notice of local bird lovers, said Milan Bull, senior director of science and conservation at the Connecticut Audubon Society in Fairfield. He said the society has received numerous calls from area residents worried about how the local bird population is faring during the recent run of brutal weather.
The short answer: they're surviving, but it isn't easy.
"All of these critters have got millions of years of evolution behind them," Bull said. "They've evolved to be able to deal with long periods of cold and snowy weather."
However, Bull said many birds can't find as much food as they normally would. "When we get a lot of snow like this, birds -- in particular those that feed on seeds -- have a hard time," he said.
Birds that feed on small mammals that live close to the ground can also struggle in snowy weather, when their prey, like mice, is less accessible.
Mammals such as coyotes and bobcats, which feed on animals that can be concealed by the snow, also struggle.
Faced with disruptions to their routine, animals must make accommodations, such as moving to a warm area where food is more plentiful. Some birds do this, Bull said -- even those that don't typically migrate.
Other animals might stay in the region, but change their hunting grounds. Owls -- along with coyotes, bobcats, foxes and other animals -- sometimes hang out on the sides of roads, looking for prey in these slightly less snowy areas, said Jenny Dickson, wildlife biologist for the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection.
Unfortunately, she said, hunting for food near traffic can hold its own set of dangers, as they can get hit by passing cars.
"Sometimes, these animals can get on the road and (because of weather conditions) can't get off quickly enough," Dickson said. Aside from changing their location, local wildlife frequently change their diet when winter makes their cuisine of choice inaccessible. "Sometimes, animals have to switch from their preferred food to a food that will get them through a tough winter, but which might not be as nutritious as what they normally eat," Dickson said.
For instance, owls might stake out bird feeders, waiting to feast on the tasty songbirds that land there. Deer peel bark off of trees. Bull said that bluebirds and robins, which typically eat small invertebrates in the summer, switch to berries in the winter to increase their chances for survival.
Oh, and if you routinely fill a bird feeder for your feathered friends, don't stop now simply because the feeder is covered in snow or difficult to get to in the inclement weather. Dancho said birds can become dependent on these human-sponsored buffets, and struggle when the food dries up.
"If you've taken responsibility for feeding the birds, you have to clean off that feeder and keep doing it," he said.
Difficulty procuring food isn't the only obstacle Connecticut critters face in winter. They also have trouble traveling, Dickson said. Depending on the weight of the animal and the thickness of the crust on the snow, certain creatures, such as white-tailed deer, can sink into the snow, making movement difficult.
Despite all the challenges facing animals in the wild during this year's brutal winter, Dickson said it's still too soon to tell whether these obstacles will translate to significant drops in bird and animal populations.
The critters are also good diggers, which means they can burrow beneath the snow for food. Others snow survivors including squirrels, which are both lightweight and good climbers.
She said there usually is a slight decline in numbers following the winter, but most healthy animals can adapt and survive.