2 The Outdoors: Wintertime Struggle to Survive

For animals that don't hibernate during the winter, the challenge to survive is magnified greatly. While hibernators live off their bodies' store of energy, those who do not must find other ways to survive.

Deer are the largest mammal in our region that must do this. Their ability to thrive in the most adverse conditions is testament to the strength and resilience of nature.

In one way, they are similar to hibernating animals, in that they live in part off of fat reserves they build up in the fall.

Paul Fuhrmann, Natural Resource Manager for Ecology & Environment in Lancaster, told Two the Outdoors: "They know, in the growing season, especially toward the end of the growing season, they need to tank up, and they need to get ready for winter. They need to build up the fat reserves. Especially the females that are pregnant, that will have fawns on or about May 1, somewhere around there."

But the deer's fat reserves can't sustain it completely, and the big mammals still have to eat. If it's exposed, they can browse on grass, but suitable food is often hard to find, and Fuhrmann says it is then that they turn to plants that may seem pretty unpalatable.

"When deer get to the point where starvation is setting in, fat reserves getting low, they'll eat some crazy stuff. They'll eat junipers and really nasty things, and hawthorn twigs with thorns on them, which really can cut them up pretty bad. You see deer in really bad winters sometimes with bloody mouths."

Even the hardiest deer can eventually succumb to the most brutal conditions, but their demise can give life to other animals.

"There's a lot of things dependent on fallen animals and deer," Fuhrmann tells 2 The Outdoors. "One of them is red and grey fox. That may mean life or death in a generation of fox, on a deer that dies of starvation or a road kill, or whatever. Coyotes, the same way."

Keeping warm is another obvious challenge to wintering animals. For deer, their thick coat helps them stay warm, but birds may have nature's best insulation.

Not only are their feathers are great insulators, but pockets of air within those feathers trap heat.

"When you see them all puffed up, they're in a bubble, so to speak," says Fuhrmann, "and then the insulating value of the types of different feathers, the down feathers, and then the shielding, the flight feathers."

Birds also benefit greatly from backyard bird feeders, but there are a number of other things humans can do to help animals make it through the winter. Fuhrmann says even the simple act of planting a tree can go a long way.

"Even postage stamp lots with a little lawn and your neighbors, there's always room for a tree or a shrub that has wildlife habitat value."

And by doing little things to help wildlife, we help ourselves as well. These small connections often lead to a deeper understanding of the world around us.

"If we think, at night, we can park the car in the garage, turn off the lights, watch the news and go to sleep, and we're something separate from the natural world, we're only making it more difficult for ourselves. They'll exist whether we have a house near them or not, and I think we'd all be better off if we thought of ourselves as part of that."


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