2017-01-25 / Gardening Tips

Gardening Tips

By “Guest Gardener” Paul Hetzler

This week’s column was written by Paul Hetzler, a Cornell Cooperative Extension agent from St Lawrence County. Although Paul lives quite a bit north of us, his winter seems to be a lot like ours!

I’m not claiming it has been a hard winter thus far, just a rather temperamental one. We go from zero to 50 degrees above, then back to single digits all in one week, each transition punctuated by freezing rain, sleet, and high winds.

Following each meteorological mood swing, I hear people comment about how confused the weather makes them. You plant spring bulbs one day, shovel snow the next, then have to lace up the crampons the day after that because it rained and then suddenly froze. If you think it’s annoying for us humans, who have the luxury of retreating into our warm homes, imagine how the animals feel.

“Singin’ in the (Icy) Rain”? Not so much

Freezing rain can really mess things up for resident songbirds. Chickadees are not able to break apart the birch and alder catkins they depend on for food. Nuthatches can’t extract seeds from pine and spruce cones, which are encased in ice. This type of weather is normal, of course, but glaze events occur more often when the weather changes its mind every few days. An ice crust on top of the snow can make it hard for grouse and turkeys, and deer as well, to find browse.

Retired Wildlife Biologist Ken Kogut, formerly with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, explains that, “The depth and character of snow has a profound impact on wildlife.” We can probably understand how deep snow might keep deer from finding food, in addition to hampering their movement. As the snowpack gets 16 or more inches deep, their bellies drag, and it’s hard for them to raise their legs high enough to take a step.

In these conditions, deer will “yard up,” finding shelter in a conifer stand. These places have much less snow on the ground because the dense canopy intercepts a lot of the snowfall. The problem is that there is very little to eat, and they may starve.

Kogut points out that while it might not be as obvious, in harsh winters a lot of turkeys also starve to death. Typically they forage by walking, scratching at the duff to unearth food, but they are unable to do this in deep snow. They will seek berries that may remain on shrubs and trees, like high bush cranberry and hawthorn, but this food is limited.

Yet some creatures depend on snow for survival. Small rodents, meadow voles in particular, fare well in the world under the snow, which science nerds call the subnivean environment. They’re safe from birds of prey, their most significant predators, and can find plenty of weed seeds and other vegetation on which to feed. Unfortunately this sometimes includes the bark of small tree trunks, much to the disappointment of orchardists and homeowners. However, in parts of the Adirondacks, the American (pine) marten hunts rodents under the snow.

Animals Can’t “Photoshop” Their Camouflage

When the white stuff piles up, Snowshoe hares, with their furry oversize feet, have an advantage over predators such as dainty-footed foxes. But with alternate-week thaw cycles, that advantage melts away. And how about species that change into white for the winter? Camouflage doesn’t work so well for ermines and hares when fickle weather keeps swapping out the background color.

The effects of winter weather are not limited to fur and feather. A small number of fish typically die as a result of winter conditions every year. In winters with a long period of ice cover, though, oxygen in the water can become so depleted that large numbers of fish may suffocate.”

Down here in Florida we are also experiencing fish kills, but these are due to a particular kind of algal bloom known as “Red Tide.”I will have more to say about this phenomena in a future column.

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This article woke me up to

This article woke me up to think about the winter habitat of my property. I'd love to see a follow-up article on do's and don'ts in creating supportive habitats in the winter that don't disrupt the unfortunately necessary predator prey relationship.
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