Pondering Winter Wildlife Cover From My Comfy Couch

It’s a good ol’ fashioned blizzard here today.  As I’m sitting snugly in my warm house, I’m feeling a little badly for some of wildlife out there in the snow and wind.  The boys went outside to play in the snow for a little while, and both of them spent most of their time building shelters from the weather.  Many wildlife species, of course, migrate to warmer places or find/build themselves underground burrows to overwinter in, but there are some animals out there in the prairie right now, and this has to be a bad day for them.

Calvin was able to dig out a little shelter in a drift. He was still pretty glad to come in and get some hot chocolate a few minutes later…

Sitting here on my comfortable couch, I’ve been thinking about the prairies I manage or help with, trying to remember what kind of cover is out there.  Overall, I feel pretty good about the situation.  Our shifting habitat mosaic approach involves providing a wide range of vegetation structure types in each of our prairies, including everything from short sparse vegetation to the kind of thick dense cover wildlife are probably seeking out today.  Nelson  (our Platte River Prairies land manager) and I have periodic conversations in which we try to envision ourselves as creatures that prefer various habitat types.  How far would we have to travel to find cover?  If we burn one patch of dense cover, where is the next closest patch of similar cover, and what would animals have to travel through to get to it?  We have a lot of factors to consider and balance as we discuss management plans each year, so it’s always helpful to see the world through the eyes of the various species that will have to live with (literally) the decisions we make.

To be completely honest, I probably don’t think enough about winter cover as I’m trying to consider the perspective of various creatures.  I’m more often thinking about nesting habitat for birds, breeding cover for small mammals, or sunning areas for invertebrates and reptiles that need to thermoregulate during the growing season.  Days like today are a great reminder that while all those considerations are important, at least some species will probably live or die based on what kind of shelter they can find during winter storms like the one roaring outside right now.

Many parts of our family prairie have pretty short vegetation structure during the winter, but we always try to leave some patches of taller grass as well.  This is kind of in-between.  It’s not really dense enough to provide great cover from the wind, but has places for small animals to hide while they’re out feeding.

I’m thinking today about meadowlarks, for example.  As I’ve walked our prairies during the last month or two, I’ve seen a lot of meadowlarks flying around in small groups.  My understanding is that meadowlarks that breed around here head south to Kansas or Oklahoma, and the ones we see during the winter come from up in the Dakotas.  In other words, meadowlarks don’t migrate en masse to one general destination.  Instead, each bird just goes a little southward from where they spent the summer.  I wonder if they each wait until they start seeing birds from the north show up and then head south to get away from the crowd…

Regardless, birds like western meadowlarks need some kind of shelter out in the prairie on days like this.  We know a lot less about the winter habitats used by grassland birds than we do about summer habitat use, and as far as I know, no intrepid biologist has yet gone out to see where meadowlarks or other birds are hanging out during blizzards.  (If you’re an intrepid biologist who HAS done this, please let me know!)  I think it’s fair to assume that most birds (and any other wildlife who aren’t underground) try to get out of the wind during this kind of storm.  It’d be interesting to know whether they stay in open grassland and look for tall dense vegetation or venture into brushy or wooded areas where they might not normally go.

Somebody is apparently sheltering in place under the snow here.  Probably not a meadowlark…

Not knowing much about individual wildlife species and how they each choose to shelter from winter storms, I guess the best strategy is to provide as many habitat types as possible so they can all find what they need.  That way, meadowlarks can forage in short or “weedy” areas during pleasant sunny days, but move to a nearby patch of dense grass (or whatever other cover they like) when they need to nestle in thatchy vegetation and get out of the wind.

Here in our comfy house, we’ve been talking about trying to fix the drafty corner of our kitchen, where one of our walls needs a little better insulation.  Our poor little feet get cold when we’re making toast on windy winter mornings!  It’d be really nice to get that fixed.  On the other hand, it’s just the kind of hardship that helps me understand what meadowlarks are going through on days like this.  I bet their feet were cold at breakfast time too…


Meadowlarks could learn from opossums, who either take over abandoned burrows from other mammals or find a nice wood pile to shelter in during cold weather and blizzards.

This entry was posted in Prairie Management, Prairie Natural History and tagged , , , , , , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

16 thoughts on “Pondering Winter Wildlife Cover From My Comfy Couch

  1. I was hoping you would post something about winter wildlife. The day after the coldest stretch of weather broke, I took a walk through a local restoration to see what was present. A number of birds from further north can be found in Midwestern prairies only during winter. The link below has two pictures of American Tree Sparrows that I took on this walk. I apologize for the photo quality. The birds are small, rather shy, and I do not have the best camera equipment.



    Regarding what birds do during severe winter weather, my understanding is that some bird species actually bury themselves into snow to stay warmer. Which is similar to what Calvin was doing in your photo.

  2. Chris: very enjoyable post. I notice hwy maintenance depts wasting tremendous amount of time and fuel moving drifting snow off roads. Simple to leave a few rows of corn standing or even better: plant a buffer strip of natives to form a drift far enough from pavement…I love winter for the stories it can tell us. Came home to see wing prints in the snow and a drag mark. Presume a raptor or eagle or owl carried off one of our bunnies for a nutritious snack. Failed to get a good image, but do have this one from yesterday:

  3. Not sure about meadowlarks, but in Manitoba, Gray Partridges simply burrow into the snow. I learned this many, many years ago as I was out one morning looking for tracks in the new-fallen snow. Nothing can startle you quite as much as a half dozen or so partridges suddenly exploding at your feet from what otherwise looked like virgin snow.

  4. I live overlooking the main fairway and docks of a marina. My view is due north, and the power boat directly across from me, at the end of a dock, has its bow pointed north. The swim platform, and aft fishing cockpit obviously faces south, and is sheltered from the wind. For three years, during the worst of our wind and cold, a great blue heron spends its days on the back of that boat, perfectly sheltered, and able to bask in the sun, if sun there is. The creativity of the creatures never fails to amaze me. Humans don’t enjoy using their boats during winter weather, so no one ever has disturbed the bird.

  5. Great post Chris, while we swelter in above-average temps in southern-NZ. Does (or did) your prairie have old buffalo hollows? I remember reading about them in Little House on the Prairie and similar. If so what role do these features play in shelter for prairie fauna?

  6. We just got done with our snowstorm in Minnesota as well. I’ve found that this is the time when dense stands of annual weeds really shine. The stiff stems stay upright even in drifting snow and the seed provides deer proof food for songbirds and pheasants. Dense stands of giant ragweed are particularly good, as they provide cover as well. Beyond that, stands of sandbar willow and cattails do an excellent job. We don’t have any prairie chickens in this part of the state, but they will burrow into the snow for protection as well. Forgoing mowing of annual weeds in newly planted prairie seedings provides the best weedy cover. I’ve tried using grazing to grow these stands of weeds, but never can get the amount of hoof action needed to produce more than a token response from common ragweed and foxtail (Setaria sp.). Still much to learn, which is what makes this job fun!

  7. Those pesky cedars are probably an excellent place to hide in a blizzard. As much as I want to remove them from my prairie, I intend to keep a thicket or two around for this purpose.

  8. Once during a winter restoration workday we took down a dead tree that had become a safety hazard. Part of the trunk was hollowed out and as the tree fell a little family of voles scampered out of the little nest they built. We all felt terrible! It was a very cold and snowy winter. They headed towards a dense thicket of brush nearby. We hope they were able to set up a new home and survive the harsh conditions.

  9. We would like to request permission to republish excerpts from some of your posts for the newsletter for Daughters of the American Revolution, Ansel Brainerd Cook Chapter in Libertyville. Illinois (circulation about 250), to highlight conservation issues for our members. We would like to credit you and refer members to your blog. Would you consider our request and also allow us to use (with credit) some of your photos? I have been following your blog for a number of years and would like to share your perspectives with the women in our group. Thanks. Our email is abc4dar@gmail.com.

  10. Another reason (in addition to providing shelter) to leave the prairies and weeds standing thru the winter is seed supply. If the seed heads are laying on the ground it’s much harder for any bird or other animal to find them. I’ve read articles similar to the one below describing how chickadees can lower their body temperature on extremely frigid nights – but then start the day with almost zero body fat, so need to find food ASAP in the morning if they are to survive another day. My bird feeders are far more “busy” during cold snaps than when it’s merely winter weather out there – as is my small prairie. I like to say it’s the best bird feeder that I have ;-)


  11. Completely off topic, but does anyone know where this year’s North American Prairie Conference will be held?

  12. Here in Northeastern IL the weather swings wildly. We are lucky to live along the Fox River where there’s usually open water for the ducks and eagles to hunt. I’ve been trying to get people to leave a little “clutter” in the fall, and not clean it up until late spring in order to preserve whatever is sheltering there over the winter.

    We have some Arborvitae and a red cedar in the yard, I’m not very fond of the Arborvitae but all of these cedars are full of birds in the winter nights, so I leave them as long as they’re healthy. I’m happy to provide some shelter and food – even if it also feeds the hawks. Predators are necessary.

    I’m also happy to see village and county land managers as well as occasional homeowners provide brush piles instead of burning or bagging everything.

  13. I’m in eastern Oregon and we had a very mild winter until 5-6 days ago. We have had heavy snow covering most everything. Yesterday a western meadowlark was slowly walking around my back yard where we had a small path of exposed ground. He was eating a bit of wild birdseed I put out for doves etc and also trying to get food out of ground. He seemed extremely slow, and would not flee until we were very close. He was attempting to huddle down in different areas and made his way under a raised flower pot, so I lined some foliage around part of it to keep the wind out.. he passed away through the night :(. I’m not sure if he had something wrong with him or if it was due to the elements that caused his death.. but it was so sad to see this beautiful bird struggle for survival.

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