April 05, 2020

Storm’s devastation didn’t spell doom for wildlife> Ice helps deer move, felled limbs raise food supply

First things first: Obviously, I’m not alone in thinking line crews, road crews, and police and fire departments should be rewarded with all-expenses-paid vacations to the Bahamas for their Herculean labors during the recent recurrence of the Ice Age. Equally impressive and heartening are the displays of resilience and resourcefulness inherent to Mainers and the granite-solid community spirit that bonds the people of this state.

Without question, the ramifications resulting from last week’s ice storm will be felt for years, particularly throughout Maine’s agricultural- and natural resource-based industries.

It isn’t surprising, then, that people whose priorities include rummaging around in the outdoors are concerned about the well-being of wildlife. Common now are questions such as: “How did the animals manage when everything was covered with ice?” The answer, thankfully, is, quite well. Better, I’d venture to say, than a lot of people.

Here again, the focus is on resilience and resourcefulness, combined, naturally, with animals’ survival instincts and skills. Deer, for example: Although falling limbs and branches stressed and possibly injured some deer, the animals actually benefited from the storm’s widespread prunings. The breaking off of softwood branches and tops, particularly cedar and hemlock, along with bud-abundant tips and twigs of downed hardwood limbs, provide feed for wintering whitetails, not to mention snowshoe hares. As an aside, porcupine cuttings also benefit deer, hares, and other herbivorous animals.

Because 10 inches of snow causes a deer to lift its legs high, therefore expending precious energy, that depth usually induces the animals to seek the shelter of coniferous stands commonly referred to as “yards.” For every action, though, there is reaction. Deep snow restricts yarded deer to moving on beaten trails, making the animals easy pickings for predators. Thanks to the storm, however, the woods are now paved with a packed and frozen mix of ice and snow which enables deer to forage and move about freely. For the time being, at least, the whitetails have an edge in the winner-take-all game of winter survival. Understand, that’s in this neck of the woods. In The County, the snow’s soft and hip deep.

Birds haven’t fared badly, either, owing to the ice-induced damages to trees shrubs and bushes. Broken limbs and branches tear and strip bark from trunks, thereby exposing insects for birds to eat. Likewise, old and decaying trees toppled by the weight of ice often split open to provide stores of highly nutritious insects. Mother Nature’s cupboards may have been locked in ice, but when broken into the shelves weren’t bare.

Although Maine’s furred and feathered inhabitants are able to deal handily with Ol’ Man Winter’s temper tantrums, many people can’t resist the urge to feed wildlife when, by human standards, animals appear to be having “hard times.” At my wife’s insistence, then, last week I bought and scattered bird seed on the snow behind my house. Suffice it to say, the response was immediate and interesting.

The handout was discovered first by gray squirrels. In short order, 15 of the furry freeloaders were scolding and scrambling at each other while they fed. The squirrels attracted blue jays, which in turn attracted crows that, naturally, had to broadcast the banquet. Then came red squirrels, cardinals, evening grosbeaks, cowbirds, and grackles. Chickadees and nuthatches made cursory inspections before darting back to the block of suet hung in the cedar hedge and shortly thereafter a flock of cedar waxwings arrived.

Although waxwings are primarily berry eaters, the birds began feeding selectively on the smorgasbord of seeds. Directly, however, the flock discovered the high-bush cranberries at the edge of the woods. Fluttering and pecking fiercely, the waxwings attacked the ice-glazed berries. As you might imagine, their efforts resulted in limited success. Eventually, the flock departed, obviously preferring to fend for themselves than accept charity.

Although everything outside appeared to be shrink-wrapped, on Saturday it took only a smile from Ol’ Sol to melt the frozen heart of Ol’ Man Winter. Through the sliding-glass doors of my studio, I watched tree limbs toss festively after shedding ice that shattered and fell like waterfalls. “We were lucky, Pete,” I said to my English pointer curled on the couch. “If we’d had wind and sub-zero temperatures along with this ice, we wouldn’t have gotten thawed out until springtime.”

Tuesday’s rain, therefore, was a godsend. Imagine the consequences had the ice not melted before the night’s northwest wind blew a gasket. There’s no doubt that last week’s ice binge will leave woodlands with long-term hangovers. But even that has merit: downed limbs, branches, and trees contribute to the biomass, while the openings left in forest canopies allow sunlight to enter and nurture new growth.

Allowing that the ice storm was disastrous to Maine’s people, I’m willing to bet wildlife populations weathered it in good shape. Of course, bears, woodchucks, skunks, chipmunks, and the like snoozed contentedly toward spring while the storm wreaked havoc all around them. But if I were asked which animals I thought fared best of all, I’d answer: fish. You have to keep your sense of humor when the world gets steeper and winter’s gets stormier.

Put another stick in the stove, pour another cup of coffee, and tie another fly.

Tom Hennessey’s column can be accessed on the BDN internet page at: www.bangornews.com.

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