Here in the north, where the climate is colder, animals have to adapt or they just won’t make it. I have watched over the last few weeks as winter’s hold seems unrelenting. In fact, as I write this column, ice pellets are bouncing off my office window, and myriad bird species are scrambling to dig out my meagre offerings of seed and cracked corn.
These are the hardy ones. The ones who have it figured out. But what of the ones who arrived in southwest Ontario yesterday, anticipating a buffet of insects on which to feed?
Tree and Barn Swallows, Purple Martins, various sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and Eastern Phoebes all came in to the Long Point area enmasse only 24 hours ago. But instead of being greeted by yummy, crunchy bugs, they have not so yummy, crunchy ice pellets.
So what will become of them? Sadly many of the swallow and flycatchers will likely die. As insectivores, most generally need insects to survive; and you will recall I wrote last year of the dearth of insects even when the weather is cooperating. Now, it’s even worse. But on the upbeat side, the warblers and sparrows will do just fine, for they can find alternate food, despite the conditions.
The Tree Swallows will switch food, to eat berries from the few remaining on the vines from last year, but this is a stop-gap measure at best. The martins can withstand 3 or 4 days of extreme cold, but this is contingent on their being well-fed when the cold snap hits. This is seldom the case with migrating birds, so they likely will not survive. Over time, these small events create a gloomy picture for our early migrants. Unless they have the strength and energy to retreat and quickly fly back south to where the weather is kinder. Many will do this, but they must hurry!
Fortunately, birds come in waves, which is a good strategy. The early ones might perish, but in a few days more will come. This works for a while, but if the bad weather persists, as it is slated to do, the outcome may be disastrous. American Woodcocks, early migrants, are in serious decline, as the spring seems to be colder and the grip of winter harder to release.
The other day, in Uxbridge, I watched grackles building a nest, while snowflakes drifted all around; hope springs eternal! This week, I took a walk at the Nonquon sewage lagoons, looking for nesting birds.
My first encounter was with an Osprey, which had just returned to nest, on the lamp posts at the ball diamonds beside the lagoons. I also saw four of these majestic birds the next day at Mitchell Lake. Since they feed on fish, as long as the water is open they can survive days or weeks of inclement weather. A pair of Canada Geese had also started the nesting cycle. In fact they had successfully laid about 6 eggs and were in the process of incubating them, despite the below freezing nights. Sadly, not the weather, but a predator, finished their breeding cycle for this year. All the eggs were destroyed and both parents killed by a coyote. The shells of the eggs and the stripped carcasses of the adults were a sad testament to what nature offered this year.
All around though, life is flexible and these few incidents help to remind us how fragile we are and how easy it is to fail. But failure is a human trait; nature never gives up. We bombard animals with pesticides, new high-speed roads, diminished habitat, tall buildings and maybe even climate change. But the resilience of animals is never ending. They will keep trying and they will succeed. Looking outside my window, I don’t see death, I see a new beginning. The birds are here in large numbers today; Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows, Juncos, Cardinals, Chickadees, Goldfinches, Nuthatches, Woodpeckers, and even the lowly Starlings are feasting on this stormy day. They will be fine and nature will be fine as well!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com, and on LinkedIn and Facebook.
We all recognize them and always react the same way, “oh, look there’s a deer!” We’ll stop in our tracks or bring our cars to a halt to watch this iconic herbivore as it grazes in a field or near the roadside. So let’s explore their lives a bit.
Known to scientists as Odocoileus virginianus, the White-tailed Deer is one of four species of deer native to Canada; the other three being Elk, Moose and Caribou.
Deer are herbivores and therefore have a complicated way of digesting their food. It involves acquiring sustenance from plants by fermenting it in a specialized part of the digestive system, called a rumen, prior to digestion in the stomach. Simply put, they chew their cud.
All male, and some female, deer have antlers, not horns. Horns persist throughout the life of the animal, as in cows, but antlers are shed annually and new ones grown. These bony outcrops are, at first, covered with ‘velvet’ that is generously supplied with blood vessels until the growth is complete. At that point, the blood flow is cut off, the velvet rubbed clean, and the breeding cycle begins almost immediately.
In the White-tail, the antlers are formed as two main branches, leaning outward over the face, and multiple smaller tines arise from these and point skyward. Known as a ‘rack’, these are prized by photographers and hunters alike. Eight to ten point bucks are not uncommon, and some can have many more.
Gray in the winter, the deer take on a beautiful russet pelage (fur) in the summer. Fairly large animals, the males (bucks) stand between 79-114 cm at the shoulder, and the females 69-84 cm.
Important for territoriality, communication and breeding, three different types of scent glands can be found on these deer, one between the toes, one on the inner surface of the heel and one on the outside of the leg. They are activated for different reasons and at different times, but always relate to messaging between animals.
Breeding takes place between October and November when the males compete for the females. Females can breed in their first year, but this is uncommon. Gestation takes about 196 days, and one or two fawns are born in May or June the following year.
They are able to stand within 10 minutes of being born and able to walk in 7 hours. Young fawns wear a cryptic medium-toned russet pelage with distinct irregular spots to provide camouflage. They carry this for about the first three months, then moult to look like an adult. The spotted young are often left alone for long periods of time as the doe feeds nearby, relying on exquisite camouflage and an innate ability to stay motionless in the face of predators to protect themselves.
Fun Fact: Fawns are born scent free to fool predators and the doe eats the droppings and urine to maintain this advantage!
To avoid predators, deer can jump over obstacles 2.5 meters tall and can run at speeds averaging 50 km/hour, and approaching 80 km/hour for short bursts. Their life span in the wild rarely exceeds 10 years, but captive held animals can live twice as long.
Wolves are often accused of causing serious declines in deer numbers, regionally, but this is rarely borne out with facts. To the contrary, studies show that the wolves keep a herd strong, weeding out the sick and old. What invariably causes significant and rapid declines are habit degradation and food availability. The loss of habitat drives deer to new areas, where conditions may not be ideal, and onto roadways, where they become road kill. The lack of food is more insidious, for it manifests itself by not only starving the breeding adults but also reducing reproduction.
I recall one day to our delight, when three deer visited our bird feeder to eat the cracked corn I put out for the Mourning doves. It was both humorous and engaging, to watch these ‘giants’ amidst our tiny chickadees and juncos! White-tailed deer are amazing animals that bring joy to all who see them. They’re out there waiting for you right now!
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.
Geoff Carpentier is a published author, ecotour guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff on-line, at www.avocetnatureservices.com and on LinkedIn and Facebook.