No need to worry about P.E.I. wildlife in stormy weather, experts say

·5 min read
P.E.I.'s red squirrels are incredibly resourceful, and have caches of food stored around their homes in case of emergency, like a snowstorm.
P.E.I.'s red squirrels are incredibly resourceful, and have caches of food stored around their homes in case of emergency, like a snowstorm.

(Bruce MacDougall - image credit)

When winter storms whip up on Prince Edward Island and send people scurrying for their cosy homes, what happens to the abundant Island wildlife?

Besides the squirrels and field mice that inevitably make their home in the shed (sometimes right inside the snowblower or lawn mower), where else do they take shelter?

"Most of our wildlife are pretty hardy and can withstand cold and snowy conditions," assures Garry Gregory, a provincial biologist with the fish and wildlife division of P.E.I.'s Environment Department.

However, Gregory says prolonged storms may present issues for some species.

In general, most wildlife will seek shelter. Here's a look.

Raccoons and skunks

Raccoons and skunks do not technically hibernate, Gregory said, but when cold temperatures hit they do slow down and are usually snuggled up asleep in their underground dens when storms hit.

Those dens are burrows they've dug in the ground with their sharp claws, dens abandoned by other species such as foxes, or perhaps in a brush pile or your firewood pile!

Birds

These pine siskins were reluctant to let the snacks out of their sight during a P.E.I. snow squall.
These pine siskins were reluctant to let the snacks out of their sight during a P.E.I. snow squall.

These pine siskins were reluctant to let the snacks out of their sight during a P.E.I. snow squall.

Chickadees take shelter in stands of softwood like spruce, pine and fir during severe weather, as the intact needles on the trees can buffer the wind and keep snow from accumulating beneath them, said Gregory.

Avid birder and photographer Shirley Gallant says she has noticed birds will face away from the wind, so it doesn't lift their feathers up.

"Their feathers lay quite flat against their body. If the wind catches them they lift up and it expose their flesh to the cold," she said.

Other fowl make themselves a cosy snow fort to ride out a storm.

"When the snow is soft and fluffy, ruffed grouse can dive into it to shelter under the snow to keep warm during windy and cold weather," Gregory said.

However, grouse and other birds can also get trapped in their snowy refuge.

"For this species a storm with extended freezing rain can be harmful as it forms a crust over top of the snow," Gregory said. "This is also true of other ground feeding birds like ring-necked pheasant."

Minister of Fisheries and Communities Jamie Fox is a wildlife lover, and excitedly shared a photo and video of a flock of Hungarian partridge sheltering around a spruce tree on his property in mid-February.

"These types of birds will weather under softwood branches," Fox noted.

Avid birder Shirley Gallant caught this snap as a sideways gust of wind caught this blue jay off guard.
Avid birder Shirley Gallant caught this snap as a sideways gust of wind caught this blue jay off guard.

Avid birder Shirley Gallant caught this snap as a sideways gust of wind caught this blue jay off guard.

Squirrels have a version of storm chips

Red squirrels are active in softwood stands too.

"They will ride out storms either in nests made of twigs and leaves, or in cavities in older trees," Gregory said.

"They also have a network of buried food piles called middens nearby where they store spruce cones that they can access as needed during a storm." Spruce cones sound like the equivalent of storm chips, for squirrels.

Bunnies

P.E.I. does not actually have rabbits — the bunnies you see are actually snowshoe hares.

They too take shelter under spruce branches, or in brush piles, during heavy snowfalls.

Mice, voles etc.

Some small mammals like meadow voles will remain in burrows and tunnels under the snow when the weather is too poor for foraging.

Beavers and muskrat

Beavers spend the winter under the ice, moving between their lodges (which have underwater entrances) and the nearby supply of food they have prepared, so they are generally unaffected by snowstorms unless the water level drops and forces them out onto the ice, Gregory said.

Similarly, muskrats build mud houses with underwater entrances and feed on cattail roots under the ice so most storms do not affect them.

Coyotes and foxes

Foxes will hide in the space under spruce tree branches or in one of their dens to ride out storms.
Foxes will hide in the space under spruce tree branches or in one of their dens to ride out storms.

Foxes will hide in the space under spruce tree branches or in one of their dens to ride out storms.

"There have long been reports of coyotes and foxes being very active before a storm, so it's possible they are able to detect changes in atmospheric pressure before the weather picks up," Gregory said.

Maybe they're stocking up on food and water — their version of a trip to the grocery store before a big storm?

"These species generally have den sites throughout their territories that they can find shelter in during storms." Nice — a house, a cottage AND a cabin, just in case.

Want to help?

So you want to make sure your feathered and furry friends are OK in the storm?

This chickadee has the feeder to himself after a heavy P.E.I. snowfall.
This chickadee has the feeder to himself after a heavy P.E.I. snowfall.

This chickadee has the feeder to himself after a heavy P.E.I. snowfall.

Keep feeders full for seed-eating birds — especially if you have been feeding birds throughout the winter, said Gregory.

This is particularly true if there are nearby shrubs and softwood trees that birds can shelter in.

Woodlot owners can consider leaving downed logs and brush piles on the forest floor as small wildlife species can find shelter in these areas during inclement weather.

"It's also important to leave large, dead trees, called snags, standing, if it's safe to do so," he said.

"The cavities in these snags are used not only as shelter during stormy winter weather but also as nesting habitat for a variety of wildlife."

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