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Nature

Good Natured in St. Charles: How many animals died because of the extreme cold?

This departure from the regular column is in response to the recent record-setting cold the National Weather Service described as “life threatening.”

It is shared by Kane County Connects, which asked our resident expert, Good Natured writer Pam Otto, questions about the super-cold. Her answers are edited for length.

Q: How many deer died in our area?

A: Can’t put a firm number on this, but can answer with another question. How many deer were sick, injured or elderly before the cold hit?

Those conditions will put any animal at a disadvantage for surviving. Is it a death sentence? Depends on the severity of the infirmity and the duration of the cold spell.

[A] more optimistic way of looking at things is that healthy deer should be fine. Their preparation for winter began months ago. [In] September, they started shedding their reddish, summer coats and replacing them with the drabber, brown-gray [of] their winter pelage.

Besides color, the fur also has a different texture. It’s longer and thicker and each individual hair is hollow, a neat adaptation to allow the air inside to act as insulator.

White-tailed deer also have an advantage – their metabolism slows in cold weather, [so] calorie intake can be less. This adaptation [and the ability to] eat many different kinds of bark, twigs and shoots means they can browse even when “easy” food like corn is buried under snow.

And most bucks have shed their antlers … heavy and impractical [after] mating season. Deer also bed down more in winter and use the snow as a wind block.

So, will deer die during this cold snap? Some, yes. But I’m pretty sure it won’t be the widespread carnage you might expect.

Q: Ditto for coyote, fox, raccoons, other mammals?

A: Fitness definitely plays a role in survival for these guys, too, but being omnivores (as opposed to deer, which are primarily plant eaters), their behaviors [must] be modified considerably during the cold.

Coyotes and foxes can take a short break from feeding, provided their winter coats came in [properly] and they have fed well until now, but I don’t think their metabolism slows all that much. They’ll do their best to find shelter and stay out of the wind, and probably get pretty hungry because there’s not going to be much prey out and about.

Those big fluffy tails are used like a blanket to cover the nose/face; that’s why individuals with mange are in big trouble.

Suburbia’s big three, raccoons, opossums and skunks, being smaller, are holed up in natural and man-made shelters. Hollow trees are popular with raccoons and opossums, but so are spaces under decks and sheds, as well as in garages and attics.

Skunks almost always are in groups in underground spaces, typically a burrow dug by something else, and of the three species are the least active in winter.

Raccoons may or may not buddy up, and opossums, I don’t think, ever do.

Q: Could cold of this extreme actually wipe out a population?

A: I don’t think so, but it depends on how you define population. If there was a group of, say, skunks that opted for a burrow somewhere that wasn’t deep enough, they could freeze to death. Or they could all succumb to respiratory infections, which is pretty common and easy to share in confined spaces.

But would the entire population of skunks in the TriCities get wiped out? Nope. I know a lot of people will be bummed to hear that, but I’m a fan of skunks and their pest-killing talents, so I for one — yeah, maybe the only one — will be cheering for them to make good choices and burrow deeply.

Again, advance prep is key to all three species’ survival. Thicker fur and layers of fat will help sustain them when they can’t go out and feed. They also can enter a state of torpor, where their body temperature drops and they don’t move much at all.

Of the mammals, opossums have it the worst. With their naked tails and ears, they’re poorly adapted to this climate. Even the best prepared of them might not survive a prolonged cold snap. But they won’t all die. And, come spring, their numbers will rebound thanks to their high reproductive rate.

Q: Any other creatures likely to die from the cold?

A: We could go on and on about reptiles, amphibians (some amazing adaptations here, including a few frog species that actually can freeze solid, thaw in spring and be fine), insects and spiders, but I’ll just mention a few that may be on people’s minds.

“At least the cold will kill off the mosquitoes,” folks tend to say. Well, not so much. Some seek shelter indoors in winter, but most species overwinter in the egg stage, in water. When the water warms up in spring, the eggs will hatch and the skeets will be back.

Then there are the stinging things. Wasp queens, like those of yellow jackets and bald-faced hornets, are hunkered down in leaf litter and downed logs. If they didn’t choose their overwintering spots wisely, some may die, but most usually survive cold snaps and will start new colonies.

Finally, there are ticks – amazingly resilient. When warm weather returns, they will be back, too.

We humans are really the most poorly adapted of all the local creatures. Our naked skin requires layers of clothing for protection, and if we’re not kept at hothouse temperatures, we get sniffly and suffer all sorts of other ailments.

By association, animals we’ve brought with us to this climate also can have a hard time. Dogs and cats have lost a lot of the behaviors and adaptations [their] wild cousins have, and can have just as tough a time as we do. [Exceptions, of course,] are huskies and malamutes out there reveling in the cold.

Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org. Feedback on this column can be sent to editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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