Some local wildlife is feeling the brunt of February’s storms.
Small animals that don’t hibernate such as pheasants are often most impacted by the weather, especially with large snow drifts such as those from last weekend’s storm.
Coming into February, pheasants were in good shape due to a mid-winter warm spell, but a polar vortex and a lot of snow has turned that around. Heavy snowfall will cluster birds and increase competition for food, said Chris Fritz, Goodhue County Pheasants Forever vice president and habitat coordinator. If southern Minnesota doesn’t get some melting soon, roosters could begin killing hens in a fight for food.
“If we haven’t already, we’re going to start losing hens to predation and self-destruction,” he said.
For an already struggling pheasant population, that’s bad news. Most of the area is already considered “very poor” for pheasant hunting by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, with less than 10 pheasants sighted per square mile during last year’s annual roadside survey.
The western side of Le Sueur County and part of eastern and central Goodhue County are considered “poor,” a step up from Waseca, Rice, Steele and Dakota counties, which are all “very poor.”
The closest area for “good” or “fair” pheasant hunting is in Nicollet County, which had over 49 birds per square mile in some western spots and between 25 and 49 birds in other spots during last year’s survey.
In the state’s south central pheasant region, which contains Rice, Steele and Freeborn counties as its eastern border, the pheasant index is down 21 percent over its 10-year average and 71 percent from its long-term average.
Animals, including pheasants, do have coping mechanisms for the storms, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Area Wildlife Manager Jeanine Vorland said.
“They’re adapted to snowy conditions. Even the pheasants, they have ways to hunker down and get through,” she said.
She did note that prolonged snow could cause some mortality in the population, but added that “pheasants don’t carry a tremendous amount of excess fat, so they can hunker down for a few days, but they have to get out and eat every few days.”
The pheasant population isn’t the only one impacted by the weather, there are actually a few species for which more snow is a good thing.
Ruffed grouse roost in snow, while deer mice and voles use the snow for an insulating layer from the cold. For jackrabbits and weasels that use the snow as camouflage, snow is also a benefit.
“Most of the wildlife in this part of the world has coping mechanisms. Few benefit from it, others are going to have to suffer through it and others are less affected,” Vorland said.
For deer, the weather isn’t likely to have had a great impact, though they’ve been on a restricted diet for quite a while due to the early snow in the fall.
“This is not real severe weather for deer. They’re adapted to shortages of food and hunkering down, waiting for spring,” she said.
If you’re among those feeling bad for animals, Vorland has some advice. First off, she discouraged feeding deer.
According to the DNR, deer can eat themselves to death due to grain overload. Furthermore, feeding often draws animals toward traffic, it’s a negative for their social structure and disease-resistance, Vorland said. Close concentrations of deer can quickly spread chronic wasting disease (CWD) and other diseases.
It may seem like you’re benefitting the deer, but it hurts more than it helps in many cases, Vorland said.
As for birds, if you’ve started feeding birds through the winter, keep going.
“If you can get out to high-quality cover areas or have been feeding pheasants or birds all winter long, don’t stop now,” Vorland said. “Stick with it until winter breaks, because it doesn’t do any good to bait them into a high-quality food resource and then cut it off.”
She urged people not to just dump food on the side of the road, but to find covered space away from the road if they’re going to feed pheasants. When people simply dump corn on the roadside, it often leads to more pheasants being hit by cars.