With a foot or two of snow hitting the Washington area this weekend, officials are telling folks to stay home, hunker down and sit it out.
But what about wildlife, the animals out there in the storm? Well, most of them will stay home, hunker down, and sit it out. Here’s what we learned from a little research conducted with Fairfax County Park Authority Naturalist Kristen Sinclair:
Deer: They’ll bed down for the storm and sit it out. When it’s time to feed again, they’ll browse on anything they can reach. Still, that can be a little problematic if the snow depth hits a couple feet or more. Does become dominant in winter and will sometimes drive other deer away in their search for food. When the weather clears out Sunday, they’ll start walking around.
Squirrels: A storm like this can be hard on squirrels, especially the young. A Chicago scientist says that 30% to 40% of the population can be lost in a major storm in that area. They’ll shelter in their tree nests, wrap their tails around their bodies, and wait for the next feeding opportunity.
Chipmunks: They’re underground, dormant and inactive. They don’t accumulate fat and hibernate, but rather they store food and rely on that. They’ll go underground in severe weather and plug the entry hole to their burrow.
Groundhogs: These guys are true hibernators. They’ll sleep it off and get ready for their big day on February 2.
Birds: Birds can take a hit in a major winter storm. They’ll try to find shelter in the usual places they frequent, fluff and puff up their feathers, and try to get into a position to avoid getting dumped on. The birds in our area at this time of year are seed eaters. The insect feeders have gone south. A bird feeder in your yard can be very helpful at this time. Even throwing some seed out over the snow will help them – and, likely, squirrels. Birds, especially Carolina chickadees, may focus their feeding attention on a particular area in winter, and if that spot is emptied of food they may not have a backup plan and could be in trouble. If you start feeding birds in winter, stick with it or the birds that were coming to your feeder may not know where else to go. Don’t put out any other foods for other animals. That will just cause problems for you in the future.
Insects: They’re not moving around. They just wait it all out underground or in leaf piles, depending on the whims of their species. And no, a storm like this won’t have any long-term effect on the population of everybody’s favorite-to-gripe-about insects, ticks and mosquitoes.
Raccoons: These bandits will find a hollow log, a burrow (maybe one made by another animal), or a brush pile. Raccoons generally are inactive at this time, not because of the cold, but because of the snow cover.
Beavers: They’ll stay in their den. So will muskrats. They’ve stored shoots and twigs, and they’ll happily feed on those. They’re not like people having to feed every four hours or they get crabby. They can comfortably go long stretches without food.
Rabbits: They could be in a little trouble when they come out after the storm. They’ll want a little food, and so will everybody else.
Foxes/Coyotes: They’ll bed down in their dens. And when the storm is over? See the section on rabbits.
Mice: They’re hiding underground. So are moles, in burrows.
Bats: Bats go into a torpor, somewhat like hibernation. Their breath, heart, and metabolism all slow down. They build body fat in the fall and may be out of action for several months in winter. They might not even know it snowed.
Fish: The water’s already cold. Fish are dormant in winter. Their metabolic rate decreases as temperatures go down in winter. As long as their lake doesn’t freeze solid, they’ll be fine, except for certain schools of shad that will see a die off from the cold.
This coming Sunday or Monday may be a good day to look for wildlife. There’s sun in the forecast, and the animals will start coming out of their shelters to seek food following the storm. There won’t be a lot of camouflage around, so spotting them may be easier than on a day without a snow cover. Look for tracks in the snow. In addition, nocturnal animals may come out in the daytime at this time of year to avoid the bitter cold of winter nights.
The Park Authority has other animal concerns in a storm like this. Some of the local nature centers have exhibit animals. Kiersten Conley, the Visitor Services and Operations Manager at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, says the key to caring for them is preparation. There are heat lamps for the snakes, a backup generator, and ECLP has moved any animals close to windows further into rooms. Staff also is assuring that all the animals are well fed. In addition, all the ECLP exhibit animals are native, so they are acclimated to these conditions.
Farm Manager Paul Nicholson at Frying Pan Farm Park says most of the farm animals have been spending time in a barn or a run-in shed. Barns and sheds will keep the livestock sheltered from the wind and snow. The snow wouldn’t bother them as much the high winds. Meanwhile, farm staff has been making extra stalls in the barn and machine shed to move animals around before the snows. They’ll be moved closer to the feed room, milking parlor and hay storage areas to make it easier for staff to care for them. “Everyone will be bedded down with extra hay and straw and plenty of water,” Nicholson said. “We do have some young goats that are drinking from a bottle and a few mothers that are due in early February, so we will keep a close eye on them as well.” Two staffers live within five miles of the park and will do what it takes to care for the animals during the storm, even stay in the farm office overnight if needed.
Author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority.