OK, this isn’t the usual Good Natured column. We’ll resume those next week — and maybe sneak in an extra one during the week.
This one is more immediate, in response to the recent bout of record-setting cold and wind chills that the National Weather Service Chicago described as “life threatening.”
Kane County Connects asked our resident expert, Good Natured writer Pam Otto, a series of questions about the super-cold. Here are her answers, probably with a slight bit of editing to make sure this doesn’t run too long.
Here are the hard questions and Pam’s answers:
Q: How Many Deer Died in Our Area?
A: Can’t put a firm number on this but can answer with another question. How many deer were sick, injured or elderly before the cold hit?
Those conditions will put any animal at a disadvantage for surviving. Is it a death sentence? Depends on the severity of the infirmity and the duration of the cold spell.
But I guess another and perhaps more optimistic way of looking at things is that healthy deer should be fine over the next few days.
Their preparation for winter began months ago. Back in, say, September, they started shedding their gorgeous reddish summer coats and replacing them with the drabber brown-gray that is their winter pelage.
Besides being a different color this fur also has quite a different texture. It’s longer and thicker and each individual hair is actually hollow, a neat adaptation that allows the air inside to act as an insulator.
White-tailed deer also have an advantage in that their metabolism slows in cold weather, which means their calorie intake can be less. This adaptation combined with the fact that they can eat many different kinds of bark, twigs and shoots means that they can browse pretty effectively even when the “easy” food like corn is buried under snow.
You’ll also notice, most bucks have shed their antlers by now. No use lugging around something heavy and impractical now that mating season is over.
One other thing: Deer bed down a lot more in winter and are able to use the snow as an effective wind block.
So, will deer die during this cold snap? Some, yes. But I’m pretty sure it won’t be the widespread carnage you might expect.
Q: Ditto For Coyote, Fox, Raccoons, Other Mammals?
A: Ditto on my response for deer, up to a point.
Fitness definitely plays a role in survival for these guys too but being omnivores (as opposed to deer, which are primarily plant eaters) their behaviors are going to have to be modified considerably during the cold.
Coyotes and foxes can take a short break from feeding, provided their winter coats came in well and they have fed well up til now, but I don’t think their metabolism slows all that much. They’ll do their best to find shelter and stay out of the wind, and probably get pretty hungry because there’s not going to be much prey out and about.
Those big fluffy tails are used like a blanket to cover the nose/face; that’s why individuals with mange are in big trouble right now.
Suburbia’s Big Three, raccoons, opossums and skunks, being smaller, are right now holed up in places in a variety of natural and man-made shelters.
Hollow trees (which is why dead trees are so important in our natural areas) are popular with raccoons and opossums but so are the spaces under decks and sheds as well as up in garages and attics.
Skunks will almost always be in groups in underground spaces, typically a burrow dug by something else, and of the three species are the least active in winter.
Raccoons may or may not buddy up, and opossums, I don’t think, ever do.
Q: Could Cold of This Extreme Actually Wipe Out a Population? (I’m thinking of the opossum story you did.)
A: I don’t think so, but it depends on how you define population. If there was a group of, say, skunks that opted for a burrow somewhere that wasn’t deep enough, they could freeze to death. Or they could all succumb to respiratory infections, which is pretty common and easy to share in confined spaces.
But would the entire population of skunks in the TriCities get wiped out? Nope. I know a lot of people will be bummed to hear that, but I’m a fan of skunks and their pest-killing talents so I for one — yeah, maybe the only one — will be cheering for them to make good choices and burrow deeply.
Again, advance prep is key to all three species’ survival. Thicker fur and layers of fat will help sustain them when they can’t go out and feed. They can also enter a state of torpor, where their body temperature drops and they don’t move much at all.
Of the mammals, opossums have it the worst. With their naked tails and ears, they’re poorly adapted to this climate. Even the best prepared of them might not survive a prolonged cold snap. But they won’t all die. And, come spring, their numbers will rebound thanks to their high reproductive rate.
Q: Any Other Living Creatures Likely To Die From This Cold? (If so, any numbers?)
A: We could go on and on about reptiles and amphibians (some amazing adaptations here, including a few frog species that actually can freeze solid, thaw in spring and be fine), insects and spiders but I’m kinda running out of time. I’ll just mention a few critters that may be on people’s minds.
“At least the cold will kill off the mosquitoes,” folks tend to say. Well, not so much. Some seek shelter indoors in winter but most species overwinter in the egg stage, in water. Come spring when the water warms up the eggs will hatch and the skeets will be back.
Then there are the stinging things. Wasp queens, like those of yellowjackets and bald-faced hornets, are hunkered down in leaf litter and downed logs. If they didn’t choose their overwintering spots wisely some may die but most usually survive cold snaps like this and will start new colonies in spring.
Finally, there’s the ticks. They’re out there and are amazingly resilient. When warm weather returns they will be back, too.
We humans are really most poorly adapted of all the local creatures. Our naked skin requires layers of clothing for protection and if we’re not kept at hothouse temperatures we get sniffly and suffer all sorts of other ailments.
By association, animals we’ve brought with us to this climate can also have a hard time. Dogs and cats have lost a lot of the behaviors and adaptations their wild cousins have and hence can have just as tough a time as we do.
What’s that abbreviation: IRMV? Individual results may vary. I’m sure there are those huskies and malamutes out there that are reveling in the cold.
- This “Good Natured” article is written by Pam Otto, the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.