Wildlife: Winter survival different for deer, turkeys

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Sometime before the end of the year, temperatures will plummet. Snow will fly. And some wildlife will die.

Many songbirds migrate south to escape harsh winter weather. Reptiles, amphibians and many mammals hibernate. Some species tough it out. Squirrels and raccoons, for example, can retire to a den for days during the harshest weather.

Wild turkeys and white-tailed deer prepare for winter by feeding madly throughout the fall. Compounding the problem for deer is the energy demanding fall rut.

Deer put on layers of fat when acorns and other mast are available. Butcher a healthy deer in December, and you'll find layers of subcutaneous fat and internal organs surrounded by fat.

By late December, deer become less active and eat less. They eat mainly woody browse. It keeps them alive, but from January until new plant growth emerges in the spring, deer survive by burning body fat. Their body weight may drop by 20 percent or more during this time.

Wild turkeys also gorge themselves in the fall. And again acorns are a favorite food. Turkeys, however, can't grow fat enough to make it through the winter. They must fly to a roost each night. If they get too heavy, flight becomes a problem.

So turkeys produce enough fat to get them through short spells of severe winter weather. This is remarkably adaptive behavior because turkeys are primarily ground feeders. They scratch through ground cover and leaf litter to find seeds, nuts and dormant invertebrates.

After a big winter storm, this foraging strategy becomes problematic. Snow gets too deep to scratch through for food. After heavy snows, turkeys can remain in trees for days. They fast or move from tree to tree eating a marginal diet of buds.

If turkeys spot a heavily used deer trail on the ground below, they sometimes descend for brief foraging bouts where the ground is accessible. But usually healthy turkeys have enough body fat to survive a week or longer without leaving roost trees.

Fortunately, catastrophic winter storms are more the exception than the rule. But when these storms strike, wildlife dies.


Biologist, author, and broadcaster Scott Shalaway can be heard 8 to 10 a.m. Saturdays on 1370 WVLY-AM (Wheeling) or online at www.wvly.net. Or visit his web site www.drshalaway.com or contact him directly at sshalaway@aol.com or 2222 Fish Ridge Road, Cameron, WV 26033.

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