Wildlife and Winterkill

February 15, 2009 by  

By Doug Leier

A young buck in search of food.

A young buck in search of food.

For many people this seems like clash of two different worlds, of poor little critters struggling to find food and stay warm during long stretches of frigid temperatures and blanket on top of blanket of snow.

It just so happens that those blankets of snow might actually help some native prairie wildlife withstand freezing temperatures. The key word is native.

Indeed, our state is home to many a critter that wasn’t engineered for this type of climate. Turkeys, pheasants, and gray or Hungarian partridge are non-native game bird species introduced to North Dakota at some point over the last 100 years.

Pheasants are probably the most notable, in large part because of their popularity and their recent rise in numbers since the winter of 1996-97. Realistically, however, maintaining a population such as we have enjoyed the past few years is nothing short of impossible, if for no other reason than North Dakota is on the northern edge of suitable pheasant climate.

Pheasants are not designed for long-term survival in northern latitudes. An easy way to understand this is by comparing the Chinese ringneck to the native sharp-tailed grouse.

Sharptail grouse blend in better with its surrounding than pheasants.

Sharptail grouse blend in better with it's surrounding than pheasants.

For starters, basic coloration patterns of pheasants provide little if any concealment from predators when the landscape turns white. Sharptails, on the other hand, are a mottled brown and white and blend in quite nicely with snow-covered surroundings.

Beyond coloration, place a rooster pheasant foot next to a sharp-tailed grouse foot and it’s obvious which bird was made to endure a harsh winter climate.

The rooster foot is bare as a baby’s bottom, while the grouse foot is fully feathered, with each toe outlined by fleshy nubs that work in sort of snow-shoe fashion to allow maneuverability on top of snow.

There is no doubt about it; grouse were made for prairie winters. Pheasants obviously can survive, but the odds go down as winter severity intensifies.

One other common misconception about pheasants is their need for food. I’m here to tell you that even with bushels of available feed, the deck is stacked against the poor rooster.

Pheasants dead because of nostril freeze

Pheasants dead because of nostril freeze

Biologists routinely discover frozen pheasants with full gizzards. Grouse have nares (nostrils) that block cold wind and snow, while pheasants do not have this feature. Grouse have feathers that form a thick multiple-layer blanket. And when things really get tough, they burrow into the snow for added insulation.

Our poor friend the rooster is often seen exposed to the elements along a road, pecking for seeds, thinking a quick meal will tide it over as a blizzard rages for days. Not so, if they don’t have a decent place for protection from wind and cold to make up for their lack of natural defenses.

Winterkill will be common this winter.

Winterkill will be common this winter.

This time of year, after a late January cold snap like we’ve recently experienced, much discussion takes place on how wildlife (read pheasants) will pull through. Such weather is tough on everything from deer to grouse, but the real test comes as winter wears on. The longer a difficult winter lasts, fat reserves and energy are depleted. Animals on the verge of making it are challenged even more should the arctic deliver a late-February blast.

Never-the-less, the recent weather will take its toll. How much is hard to determine, but remember that in any winter the strong will survive and the weak will perish. In some years, even the strong don’t make it.

It’s still too early to tell if we’re in the middle of one of those years, but a warm-up any time soon would be appreciated – by beast, and man.


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