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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Helping Our Local Critters Thrive Through the Winter

Jan 27, 2017 03:49PM ● By Rick DiMaio

Parks, forest preserves and green spaces are bountiful in our third-largest metropolitan area in the country, including Baker Park, in Evanston, Fort Sheridan Forest Preserve, in Highwood, and Glacial Park Nature Preserve, in McHenry County. Some prefer the rural qualities of Rock Cut State Park, in Winnebago County, or the urban, walled-in feel of Grant Park, in downtown Chicago. Our local city parks and bike trails can also be great places to reunite with nature. These are places to go for some peace and quiet most of the time, where we are typically greeted by a curious squirrel looking for a handout, a rabbit or three around sunset just looking at us or a curious coyote staring from the distance.

            These moments are relaxing and peaceful in the summer and fall, but during the middle of winter, they can be fleeting and rare when we have six inches of snow underfoot, the wind chill is hovering below zero and we don’t want to be outside. During a frigid winter morning or a day after a very heavy snowstorm, take a moment to notice the absence of animal or bird activity; our furry friends don’t want to be out, either, yet need to forage to stay alive. Sure, one day of cold might not make a difference to humans, but after three of four days of below-zero temperatures or a heavy snowfall, small animals and birds must survive harsh winter conditions without their normal supply of food or water. As climate variability brings more change to seasonal weather patterns, there are things we can do to help out.

            December 2015 was the fourth warmest in Chicago’s history, with less than four inches of snowfall and average temperatures nearly 12 degrees above normal; yet December 2016 averaged nearly 15 degrees colder, with almost 20 inches of snowfall in some places. Kevin McKelvey, of the U.S. Forest Service, reports that climate change is expected to impact most parts of an ecosystem, and mammals are no exception no matter where they live; some have very specific climatic adaptations, such as requirements for snow, sea ice or temperatures within a narrow range for hibernation, and climate variability challenges them. Some have distributions that are dependent on climate and use a variety of often disjointed resources to hide, eat, drink and breed, and in many cases, these places are distinct and may change seasonally.

            Although local uncertainties exist, scientists are learning there are many opportunities for climate change to disrupt mammalian life histories because in general, they will not be able to effectively hide in microhabitats. Most mammals are also highly mobile, and have relatively short life spans, generally less than 20 years, so if climates become unsuitable, mammalian response and population levels can be expected to be rapid.

            During the coldest and snowiest periods, when we notice a significant decline in bird and small mammal activity, local nuts are the best present we can give the squirrels. People like to feed them peanuts, which is a legume, not a nut, and often don’t stop to think about how this food isn’t something a squirrel would normally eat. Take a look around at the local nut trees in the area. Hickory nuts, beechnuts, walnuts and butternuts are all great options. Gather some of these nuts up next fall (or purchase at this time of year) and put them in a pile near a tree where the squirrels hang out. Sunflower seeds are a good treat, too, and easy to obtain wherever birdseed is sold. Most people have seen the way squirrels raid the bird feeders, and it’s generally because they want to eat the sunflower seeds.

          When it comes to our friends of flight, most wildlife experts suggest a source of unfrozen, fresh water for birds in winter. Offering it in our backyard may double the amount of birds we can enjoy during the colder months. Invest in a birdbath heater or just place a small bowl of warm water out every day for backyard birds. Don’t remove birdhouses in the winter; they need plenty of roosting places during the winter to stay warm, so leave them up. And if the squirrels move in, well, they need a place to hide until spring as well.

            Reuse the Christmas tree and natural wreaths, or branches that were cut in the fall and not yet composted. Instead of discarding or recycling, remove all decorations and throw it on the ground or pile up where it can offer shelter to birds. Many birds, especially juncos, towhees and sparrows, will appreciate keeping snug on cold winter nights.

            As noted by Fish and Game magazine, the abundant food supply wild rabbits enjoy in warmer months is decimated by winter. Rabbits do not hibernate, but in extreme cold, they often seek shelter by burrowing into snowdrifts. With warm weather foods like clover, tender young plants, berries and vegetables gone or difficult to find, wild rabbits resort to eating woody plant parts like twigs, bark and buds of trees and bushes, including our backyard garden plants.

            So when doing winter yard work on the next sunny day, keep our urban critters in mind and build a small rabbit fort, throw some nuts near the base of a tree or fill up the birdbath with some warm water. Or better yet, teach the kids to do it, because it’s too cold outside for us adults.

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Rick DiMaio is a professional meteorologist and climate scientist, specializing in aviation meteorology and environmental sustainability. Since 1985, DiMaio has served the Chicago area as a TV and radio broadcast meteorologist, college instructor and flight operations aviation meteorologist. He is currently heard on The Mike Nowak Show.