Despite the extremely mild winter we’ve had (so far 29 days have been above 50 degrees this winter – that’s 1/3 of the season!), these are still lean times for many of our local animals. And while the warm nights and thin snow are a welcome respite for some animals, even they struggle to fight off starvation during an atypically warm winter.
For most herbivores, the lack of snow does little to improve their chances of survival. In fact, it’s a detriment. Most of our herbivores thrive on fruits, nuts, and green plants all of which are in short supply regardless of how much snow is on the ground. Buds and bark make up the majority of their diet and some of our smaller animals, such as rabbits, depend on snow to provide them with a platform to access these tasty and relatively nutritious buds. Deep snow also allows our smaller herbivores to tunnel and avoid detection by hungry predators.
Large herbivores, such as deer, benefit from the lack of snow. Access to their preferred winter food (buds, bark, and evergreen leaves) is unimpeded by snow regardless of the depth. They also can use their sharp hooves to move the snow in search of acorns and other nuts. Conversely, hard winters can be devastating to deer populations. Deep snow forces them to expend much more energy when moving around as their long, slender legs and hooves do not allow them to float on top of the snow. Last winter, we saw a high number of deer killed by coyotes, most likely because the deer could not escape quickly through the three feet of snow.
For the majority of our predators, winter is a time of scarcity regardless of the weather. Since fewer prey animals are active, predators expand their territory and take more risks. In my community, coyote sightings have skyrocketed this winter. This is in part because the lack of foliage makes them easier to spot, but these animals are also walking further and longer in search of food. The voles and mice that make up the majority of their diet are easier to catch with thin snow cover, but finding (and catching) them is still extremely challenging. In other seasons, fruit, insects, eggs, and young animals all make for easy pickings. For a predator in winter, survival is only as certain as your next meal.