Now that Old Man Winter has finally wrapped us in his bitter blanket of snow, we’re burning our firewood, using our snow shovels, fretting about frozen pipes and watching our heat bills climb. While the promise of Groundhog Day isn’t far away, we know what that promise will be. Whether or not the dirty rodent sees his shadow, he’ll duck back into his burrow for six more weeks of winter. Bank on it.
If we had never seen winter turn to spring before, we’d think everything is dead. With Earth’s northern hemisphere tilted away from the sun, a look out the window gives us a bleak picture. Even the most stubborn leaves have let go of the trees and blown to parts unknown. Heavy snow or ice has toppled some aging trees and broken weak branches on others. Waterways and ponds are frozen over. The icy turf is rock-hard under the snow. We wonder how life survives this winter wasteland.
But it does survive. That frozen grass spent its last few weeks beefing up its root system and storing energy for spring green-up. Hardwood trees will soon draw sap up their trunks, and along with it, the sugars needed to nourish leaf buds.
Jesus was right when he said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests…” (Luke 9:58), and although he left unmentioned all other creatures, each has a place to go even in wintertime.
Underground, the woodchuck sleeps while reptiles and amphibians hibernate. Lethargic bears snooze beneath fallen treetops, inside hollow logs or under the shelter of large rocks. Turtles buried themselves in the muck of the stream bottoms. Snakes found holes that led to underground cavities where they wait out the frigid above ground temperatures. Most insects have died off, but their larvae rest in the soil or underneath rocks and tree bark. These grubs will begin to emerge soon after the soil rises above the freezing mark.
Deer need to conserve energy so they bed in the thermal cover of hemlock trees, or lay up on southern slopes to soak up the sun. If the snow is especially deep they “yard up,” or gather near a food source where they rest, establish a network of trails through deep snow and move as little as possible to conserve energy. Bucks shed their antlers, an appendage that has become unnecessary for cold weather survival. The does they chased a couple of months ago minimize stress so their bodies can nourish their unborn fawns.
Turkeys and other upland birds flock together in warm spots where a few active insects linger and the snow isn’t too deep to scratch through for seeds and nuts. They also feed on buds and blossoms that await the spring thaw. When farmers begin spreading manure on their fields, the sounds of the tractor and spreader become a dinner bell for turkeys, inviting them to pick over the dung for undigested seeds and bugs that thrive in the waste. Forests and farms offer much more food than we might think, but if food becomes impossible to find, turkeys can fly up into trees and survive up to a month there while barely moving.
Not every wild animal makes it through winter, even a mild winter. Coyotes, foxes, bobcats, fishers and other predators will kill some of these animals for their own survival. Others will die from exposure or injury, and will be scavenged by crows, hawks and terrestrial foragers. Death keeps animals in balance with their habitat and with other species. Death is the way of wildlife.
And when Old Man Winter finally releases his stubborn, icy grip, the landscape that looks dead now will awaken. Life will flourish once again. So don’t be fooled by what you see now. Soon, everything will change.
When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. To read more of Steve Sorensen’s thoughts about hunting, please visit www.jamestowngazette.com.