“Winter is coming” is a popular refrain in the hit HBO series, “Game of Thrones.”
With “polar vortex” now a part of America’s vocabularly, subzero temperatures threatening record lows and winds with the bite of the show’s White Walkers (think intelligent, frozen zombies) — winter has clearly arrived in full force.
What happens to wildlife when the thermometer shows single digits, and wind chills steal even more of the warmth from the air?
“It might be slightly colder than normal, but it’s not an extreme winter at this point,” said New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Region 8 Wildlife Manager Mike Wasilco. “There will be some wildlife that have problems with it.
“The very old may have issues. If an animal had other health issues going on, they may have survived a mild winter but they might not survive a cold, snowy winter like this year. For the most part most of our native wildlife, they’re adapted to having the winters that we get here and they’ll do just fine.”
Here’s a breakdown of the impact that frigid winter weather in any area has on different wildlife groups:
Sportsmen will be happy to hear that the cold weather will have little effect on this popular big game animal. Whitetailed deer cope just fine with low temperatures.
As long the area isn’t hit with a heavy amount of snow that lingers for a prolonged period of time, the deer population won’t be negatively impacted by the winter weather this year.
“Deer are more impacted by snow depth than anything,” Wasilco said. “Especially if the snow is deep and then it gets crusted over, they can’t dig down to access some of the food. They also have a hard time running through it, while coyotes and dogs can run over the top and they’re able to chase deer down pretty easily.”
If anything, the cold may simply force deer to switch up where they typically hang out.
“When it’s real cold like this they’ll move into wintering areas where they’re a bit sheltered from the elements,” Wasilco said. “They may be moving into areas with southern exposure slopes, maybe southeast, so they’re out of some of that west wind. They’ll kind of hunker down where they’ve got a little bit more thermal protection and some sort of food.”
Birds, of course, have an advantage over their four-legged counterparts in the animal kingdom — they can escape the worst of the cold by flying for the warm temperatures of the South each fall.
Many species are year-round residents, however. They’re also forced to adjust to the cold, including the birds who depend on bodies of water that are sometimes frozen over.
Page 2 of 3 - “Most the waterfowl will do fine as long as they’ve got open water and a food source,” Wasilco said. “If it gets too bad generally they’ll pick up and head further south to rivers and things where there’s open flowing water and get through. We’ve seen with the Finger Lakes iced up, the birds are moving to other lakes or to the rivers, or heading south.”
Game birds — turkey, grouse, pheasants — are more rooted to a home range, but they too get through the cold just fine as long as the snow isn’t too heavy.
“The extreme cold doesn’t cause a whole lot of problems for them, as long as they can find food,” Wasilco said. “Generally grouse, turkey and those type of birds will do fine as long as we don’t have deep snow or snow crusted with ice where they can’t get down to the food sources underneath.”
The smallest birds are at the biggest risk.
The primary cold-weather threat to fish is winterkill, a natural phenomenon that can afflict smaller ponds. According to the DEC, winterkill “occurs when waters rich in nutrients, algae and other aquatic plants are covered with ice and snow for long periods of time. Winterkills occur when ice and snow prevent sunlight from entering the pond and prevent aquatic plants from producing oxygen, necessary to maintain life in the pond.”
The lack of heavy snow on top of the ice is a positive, but winterkill is a threat to some ponds this year.
“It’s possible,” Wasilco said. “The longer there’s ice cover on a body of water, the harder it is for gas exchange to occur between the water and the atmosphere. If there’s snow cover on top of ice, it exacerbates the problem by blocking off the light, causing plants to die and start decomposing, which then really pulls the oxygen out of the water.”
What about mammals that live in the water, like beavers and muskrats?
“As long as the water levels don’t change drastically, if the ponds ice over they’ve got entrances to their dens that are underwater, under the ice,” Wasilco said. “They’ll come and go. They’ll come up into the den or air pockets to breathe, or they can swim out under the ice to go gather food and come back to their den site. Really it makes it harder for predators to get to them more than anything.”
Wodchucks and other animals that spend the season underground are sheltered from winter’s icy hand by the earth. True hibernators are content to sleep off the worst part of the winter, with their internal alarm clocks not going off until spring has arrived.
Page 3 of 3 - The winter rest of other animals, like the black bear, is more fitful. Male bears especially have a tendency to wake up and wander about if the weather turns unseasonably warm for a few days.
With temperatures remaining low for most of the winter, bears are more likely to remain in their dens.