By JIM ABRAMS
My local weather forecasters have been warning me for three weeks that bad weather was headed our way. But, ever hopeful, I thought that just maybe we would dodge their predictions.
These meteorological experts were the whitetail deer that inhabit the woods and fields around my home. They’ve been spending a lot of time foraging for food in harvested cornfields and my clover food plot. Last week, that feeding frenzy intensified and what was just a few animals has grown to dozens.
Then it hit: cold, Arctic cold. The kind of cold that gives you a chill just reading the forecast in The Courier. Car batteries fail, prayer is required to start diesel engines, electric meters are spinning wildly and lawyers have to keep their hands in their own pockets.
We use our collective common sense by huddling at home and doing our best to wait it out. We limit our exposure to those frigid temperatures and safeguard pets and livestock while double-checking our water pipes. Thankfully, these northern blasts are relatively short-lived in our region.
But what happens to wildlife during these uncommonly frigid spells?
Animals, such as the deer in my backyard, instinctively seek out high-energy foods, limit their movements to conserve body heat and will spend their time loafing in sheltered areas that are protected from the wind.
Migratory birds hopscotch their way farther south as weather worsens. Those that have taken up winter residency are equipped for cold spells. They’re mobile food finders and have a circulatory system that helps keep them warm. Their feathers are excellent insulators: They’re literally carrying a down jacket with them.
The snow acts as an insulation for the voles and mice that inhabit our landscape. They scurry through tunnels that they excavate from warm den to food sources, remaining invisible to lurking predators.
Reptiles and amphibians have burrowed into mud, dens, leaf litter or other protective cover while entering into states of hibernation or “torpor,” a slowing of the metabolism and circulatory system to survive cold weather.
What might be hurt? A deep, penetrating ground freeze will often reduce the summer’s mosquito population. While I don’t relish a negative 10 on the thermometer, I also don’t care for swatting summer’s swarms of mosquitos. Score one for the cold.
Heavy snow cover is a greater threat than the cold temperature alone, especially if that snow has been covered by a layer of ice. This can hinder mobility and makes finding grazing patches a difficult venture for deer and turkeys. A blizzard’s high winds and blowing snow will take its toll on birds with its hypothermic effects, and all animals will struggle to find their next meal. Fortunately, we’ve thus far been spared those conditions.
The fabled Punxsutawney Phil decides today whether we can start breaking out the fishing gear and gardening supplies. I hope he has good news: I’ve never been much of an ice fisherman.
“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” — Mark Twain
Along the way:
Groundhog Day always falls on Feb. 2, traditionally marking the midpoint between the winter solstice in December and the spring equinox in March. The story explains that the overgrown rodent can predict the length of our winter by taking a look at his own shadow.
If he spots it, there’ll be six more weeks of winter; if not, then spring daffodils are right around the corner. Sounds like a lot of malarkey to me. So, where did this story originate?
There’s a long human tradition concerning the time between solstice and equinox. Many of the beliefs center upon the rebirth of the world from the desolate and hard winter life to the arrival of spring, the birthing of young animals, greening of the countryside and arrival of planting season. In a greater and more religious perspective, it was often looked upon as the triumph of birth over death: a spiritual promise of life.
Historically, the New World’s woodchuck wasn’t the first animal that was celebrated as a possible predictor of spring’s arrival.
A bear helped forecast for the people of France and England, and those in Germany turned to badgers for a sign. They were looked upon for their predictions during the Christian celebration of Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Presentation and the Feast of the Purification.
Since the traditional celebration anticipated the planting of crops, a central focus of the festivities was the forecasting of either an early spring or a lingering winter. Without WeatherBug on a smartphone, they needed to look for other prognosticators. Sunshine on Candlemas was said to indicate the return of winter.
German immigrants coming to Pennsylvania found that badgers were in rather short supply but that woodchucks might know as much about the local weather as their home country’s badgers. The groundhog was hired without interview.
Those transplanted Germanic traditions have woven their way into our annual calendar and winter festivals while birthing the celebrity Punxsutawney Phil, who also has imitating cousins in many other states.
Today’s celebrated Groundhog Day is a remote survivor of those old beliefs. Though we recognize that animal behavior isn’t the only way to judge planting dates, the tradition continues, often with a wink, smile and maybe a little suspicion that Phil might just know something we don’t.
Can a woodchuck really forecast when spring might arrive? Researchers who have time to research such things say that Punxsutawney Phil is batting about .390.
If only my Cleveland Indians would do so well.
• Division of Wildlife Chief Kendra Wecker announced that two Division of Wildlife veterans will take over the assistant chief positions on her leadership team: Todd Haines and Pete Novotny.
Haines began his career in 1987 as a wildlife research technician in Oak Harbor before moving to southwest Ohio to work as a management supervisor in the division’s District Five office in Xenia. Since 2003, Haines has served as the manager.
Novotny began his career in 1996 as a wildlife officer serving Harrison County. He continued working in the division’s law enforcement section until 2015, when he was promoted to manager of the division’s District Three in Akron. I’ve worked with both and have a great deal of respect for their capabilities.
• Tomorrow: Last day of deer archery season.
• Tomorrow: Trap shoot, 1 p.m., Mount Blanchard Gun Club, 21655 Delaware Township 186.
• Thursday and Friday: Trap and skeet, open to the public, 5 p.m., UCOA, 6943 Marion Township 243, Findlay.
• Feb. 10: Winter Trap League, Fostoria United Sportsmen’s Club, 1324 U.S. 23 N, Fostoria. League will run for six Sundays, with no early sign-up required. A five-person squad is required to shoot. Practice opens at 9 a.m. and the event begins at 10 a.m. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 419-435-4953 for information.
• Feb. 16: Third annual sportsmen’s banquet, 10:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m., Heritage Christian Union Church, 15738 Ohio 37, Forest. Enjoy vendors, displays, dinner and door prizes at this family-friendly event. Three Canadian fishing trips will be given away as grand prizes. Music will begin at 3 p.m. with service following. All events are free and the public is invited. For information, call 419-273-2089.
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard 45867-0413 or via email at email@example.com