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.
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.
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.
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…