By Rachel Mueller, Marketing & Communications Coordinator
While we enjoy WPS Garden of Lights and look forward to the holidays to close out 2018, colder temperatures are on their way after the start of the year, even if we don’t want them to arrive.
Winters can be stressful on us, but they can be even more demanding on wild animals, especially if the season is colder and snowier than normal, and here in Wisconsin, we’re no strangers to below zero temperatures, wind chills, snowstorms or polar vortexes. Just this past April we had one of the snowiest weekends on records and saw robins and other spring birds struggling with the cold.
So what happens when winters are harsher than normal? What do animals do if they can’t migrate to a warmer climate or safely hibernate for a few months?
Typically, varying species of Wisconsin wildlife like birds, deer, foxes, rabbits, mice, hedgehogs and more adapt to the seasonal switch by managing their energy output, growing a thicker fur coat or adapting to the environments in other ways. But when Mother Nature kicks things up a notch, there are a few things we can do to support wild animals without being too intrusive.
Plant Native Vegetation for Food and Shelter
Even though providing extra food is an option, prepping native plants in the growing season is the best way to help animals handle colder temperatures or snow. Plant trees and shrubs that produce nuts and berries as well as flowers, grasses and herbs with seed heads so animals will have something to forage.
Materials to build shelters are also extremely beneficial. Evergreen trees, shrubs, dead trees, branches, twigs, rock, wood piles and brush are useful options for nests and also provide protection from the wind and snow.
Leave Things a Bit Untidy in the Fall
As much as we want our gardens, lawns and property to be neat and tidy once autumn transitions into winter, we should really resist the urge to completely clean everything away.
Leaves, twigs and rocks can be used for shelter and smaller animals can find places to burrow underneath snow in spots where natural debris has collected. Rotting logs, branches and stems are the perfect place for grubs, worms and bugs to live, and they can act as a reliable source of food for some animals.
Provide Access to Water and Supplemental Food as Necessary
Along with a drier environment and colder temperatures, a decrease in available food and water is a main reason animals have a tough winter. Animals expend additional energy on trying to keep warm and if that energy isn’t replenished, they will burn important fat stores instead and get thinner.
While we shouldn’t directly get involved, planting native vegetation as we mentioned before, putting up bird feeders or providing fresh berries when it’s especially harsh are all appropriate ways to give birds and other wildlife food. Additional or artificial food placed in the wild can attract animals not supposed to be in that environment, cause digestive issues or in some instances, promote disease and death.
If you want to go an extra step, you can also make sure that fresh water is available all-year-round. Heated bird baths are an amazing option since birds can bathe and other animals can use them no matter the temperature. Just remember to regularly clean them with a 10% bleach water solution to help prevent disease.
Report Sick or Dead Animals to the Department of National Resources
You may notice more wildlife struggling, becoming sick or even see large-scale die-offs of certain animals during the winter. Most of the time, this is a normal instance since the wildlife population fluctuates, but if you’re concerned about a high number of animals perishing in your area, you can contact your local DNR with your observations.
Once spring rolls around, you may also notice dead animals appear once the snow melts. This is typical and a natural part of life cycles and also acts as a vital source of food for scavengers.
Control Your Desire to Directly Interfere
This is the most important thing to remember if we see an animal struggling to survive this winter. As much as we want to help, it’s crucial that we don’t directly interfere since our involvement could cause unintended consequences that could negatively affect even more animals. If you’re concerned, contact your local DNR and let trained and educated wildlife experts handle the situation instead.