January 16, 2018
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Don’t worry, Maine’s wild critters are just fine in the extreme cold

By John Holyoke, BDN Staff
Updated:

For more than a week, Mainers have had their toughness severely tested, as temperatures have struggled to work their way above zero every day, and have fallen well below that each night.

We humans have had it tough enough, and we get to head inside to sleep.

But what about our wild critters? How are they faring out in our cold, dark forests.

Keel Kemper, a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife wildlife biologist who works out of the Sidney regional office, says cold weather doesn’t faze our native critters a bit.

The animals had a choice, you see.

“In this arena, you either migrate, you hibernate, or you adapt. That’s really the three options that you have, isn’t it?” Kemper said.

The migrating animals such as some birds have already flown the coop.

The adapters — more on them in a minute — are doing what they can to get by.

And the hibernators? Well, Kemper’s got some news for you.

“Let’s just go and knock this hibernation stuff out,” he said, explaining that Maine has very few true hibernators. Surprise: Bears aren’t one of them.

The jumping field mouse, an occasional bat and woodchucks complete the list, according to Kemper.

“Everything else is adapting,” he said. “Even bears. This is what I tell people: Ask any woman if she could hibernate and give birth [at the same time]. Our bears give birth in the middle of winter. They’re terribly good winter sleepers, but they have been known, and are quite commonly known, if it’s warm, to get up, mosey around a little bit. The same for small mammals [like] skunks, raccoons.”

Now, about those adapters. Kemper knows them all, but some truly stand out. And he really likes to talk about the state bird, the black-capped chickadee. That species has a neat way of conserving heat when it’s cold.

“They call it communally roosting, but the rest of us would call it ‘spooning,’” Kemper said, explaining that six or eight birds will gather at night in a convenient space and huddle together and share warmth. But that’s not all that’s going on.

“More critically, they have the ability to turn down their engines at night in a term that’s referred to as ‘torpor,’ and drop their heart rate down to three or four beats a minute,” he said. “Then they have the ability to fire it back up when the sun comes up.”

Moose, he said, have few problems with cold weather.

“Moose are designed for this stuff,” he said. “They’re big, they’re big-bodied, long-legged, designed for snow. Thick hair. Hollow hair. And, of course, they’re wearing a winter coat, rather than a summer coat.”

Deer also have hollow hair, which helps them insulate, Kemper said. A deer enters winter fat and happy, and problems don’t crop up early in the season, but trouble can lurk later in the season, if winter stretches too long.

“It’s just a big, giant marathon, and they’re trying to keep running until spring,” Kemper said. One problem: The available forage in the winter isn’t going to pack on any more pounds, and deer are constantly losing weight and energy through the cold season.

“Nobody’s gaining weight on hardwood browse,” Kemper said. “It’s all about their energy budget. You’ve got to run the marathon, and here is your energy budget. And you’d better not do things that cause you to expend unnecessary energy, like getting chased by coyotes or a whole host of other things.”

The biggest threat to deer can be a devastating late-winter storm.

“If they exceed the [energy] budget, they die,” Kemper said. “That’s why we worry more about a big old snowstorm late in the season. It’s like putting Heartbreak Hill in at the end of the marathon.”

Among those animals who seem to thrive during the winter are beavers, who have only one predator during cold weather: Human trappers.

“Beaver got it pretty well figured out. They’ve got a lodge, they’ve laid in a food pile that lasts them all winter, they go into their little lodge and hang out,” he said. “They’re practically predator-proof, because nothing can get after them.”

Another interesting species that adapts: The garter snake.

“Snakes [gather] together in communal situations. Somewhere out there is a god-forsaken nightmare for Maine people, who ‘love’ snakes: A big, writhing mess of garter snakes is hanging out somewhere.”

Bald eagles often “exploit” fishermen who throw fish on the ice for them to eat, and Kemper said some lakes can have 10 or 20 well-trained eagles standing by, looking for a meal.

And as for the migrators? Well, when we’re in the middle of a historic cold snap, it might seem like they’re the smartest critters of all.

“Migration — traveling long distances — is inherently more dangerous than hanging out in your well-established little, known territory. So traveling is fraught with peril,” Kemper said. “But it’s a great strategy. I mean, hell, it’s such a great strategy that half the damn state has invented it, adopted it and the other half of us are wishing we were joining [those human snowbirds], to some degree.”

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