Wildlife: Animals find ways to survive super storms

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Hurricane Sandy has claimed more than 80 American lives and caused an estimated $50 billion in damage. Those numbers are likely to increase in the days ahead.

Another unspoken toll is that taken on wildlife. How can wild animals possibly survive such a super storm?

The answer is, we don't know. Sandy is the biggest storm on record for Eastern U.S. There is no worse storm to which to compare it. But let's consider some ways that wildlife survives severe weather in general.

Where storm surges measured more than 12 feet, few animals other than bird can survive. Trapped in burrows, or beneath ground vegetation, most small mammals, reptiles and amphibians would drown. Any that had already buried themselves into the muck for the winter might have a chance to survive if the sheer turbulence of the storm didn't uproot them from their resting places.

Birds, of course, can fly, and at least have a chance to survive even the most horrific storms. They may be displaced long distances by strong winds, but they eventually return to their home bases. Last week Pabirds.org, set up by the Pennsylvania Society for Ornithology, hummed with reports of sea birds such as gulls, terns, phalaropes, gannets, jaegers, scoters, brants and storm-petrels.

The safest place to ride out a storm might be in hollow den trees. Squirrels, raccoons, opossums, woodpeckers, owls, bluebirds, chickadees, titmice and nuthatches simply retire to the security of a den tree -- until the wind gets too strong. When trees snap, they usually break at a weak spot, such as a cavity.

Birds that don't normally roost in cavities hunker down in dense vegetation. Bramble thickets, grape tangles, evergreen groves and even dense grasses provide effective cover even during the fiercest storms. Birds' feathers provide waterproof layers of insulation, and they hang on for dear life. A bird's weight automatically locks its toes around the perch, so it's very difficult for a bird to be blown off a perch.

Coyotes and foxes find shelter in hollow logs, underground dens, old barn, and abandoned vehicles. Bears can curl up under a brush pile. White-tailed deer typically bed down under conifers or other dense vegetation. Larger mammals have dense pelage that sheds water well.

Over the coming months, hunters and hikers will certainly find evidence of Sandy's wrath. It may take time, but wildlife populations almost always rebound and recover.

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Biologist, author and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 9-11 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 AM WVLY (Wheeling), and noon-2 p.m. Sundays on 1360 AM WMNY (Pittsburgh). He can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com, and 2222 Fish Ridge Rd., Cameron, WV 26033.


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