The heavy snow cover in much of Missouri this week has affected us all. But most affected are the wildlife that don’t get to come inside to warm up. It never ceases to amaze me how well small birds are able to survive such extreme cold temperatures, with deep snow covering the ground where they normally feed. I’ve noticed some species at my feeders in the last few weeks that don’t usually feed there. On a couple of mornings an eastern towhee was feeding on the seeds on the snow, and several fox sparrows have been even more regular visitors. Both species would normally be turning over leaf litter in forested areas in search of seeds and insects. With the leaf litter now covered by several inches of snow, these birds have moved to feeding areas where their seed hunting is more successful.
I can’t help but worry about the bobwhite quail on some of the conservation areas where I hunted them this past season. Now the birds will be walking on the snow surface, about 18 inches above the ground beneath. There is one patch of standing, unharvested milo that should provide some easily accessible seeds for them. They should also be able to find fruits on some vines such as the poison ivy berries shown in the photo here. The snow should not be too deep under the dense evergreen crowns of the young eastern red cedars. The dark brown quail will have to be careful to stay near cover because they certainly will not have the benefit of camouflage against the white background. Patrolling hawks make regular flights over quail habitat in search of their own favorite foods.
Winter storms that cover the ground with snow, or other forms of ice, for long periods can be deadly for wild birds, especially the smaller species that can’t dig through the deep snow to find foods. Built-up fat reserves can only keep the birds going for so long without access to food. Even a brief warm-up that uncovers some feeding areas can provide life-saving relief between storms and affect the size of next year’s bird populations. Let’s hope we all get through this winter with no permanent damage.