Too cold for critters

The unfortunate fate of the frigid feline that was discovered, barely alive and frozen to a rock next to an outdoor fish pond in northwest Minot last week, should serve as a vivid reminder of how brutal our winters can be on anything living outdoors in dangerously cold temperatures. The cat had apparently fallen into the pond and, upon climbing out, quickly became frozen to the rock in minus-20 degree temperatures and even colder wind chills.

Despite a very prompt rescue by the Minot Police Department, which used warm water to free the cat, the poor animal proved far too weak to survive its ordeal. The incident and sad fate of the cat proved to be of great interest in the city and beyond, but it also demonstrates how sub-zero winter conditions can take a toll on birds and animals no matter where they are found.

Pheasants and deer, two of North Dakota’s most high profile species, often fight a losing battle to survive when our winter conditions prove relentless. Sometimes I wonder how any of our wildlife makes it through the winter. Even native species like sharp-tailed grouse can have a difficult time in the winter months. Hungarian partridge, an introduced bird like the pheasant, has proven to have some winter survival skills. But there are limits.

Longtime North Dakota residents don’t regard our recent spell of sub-zero temperatures to be anything too far beyond the ordinary. They have seen it before, but such miserable cold blasts remain somewhat rare. According to the National Weather Service, it has been 30 to 40 years or more since such weather extremes have blanketed the area.

We tend to warm up our vehicles for a long period of time and stay warm indoors as much as possible during extreme cold. Imagine our wildlife, spending days and nights in sub-zero cold in a battle to survive. During an extended period of harsh conditions wildlife can use more energy finding food than they can consume. Even the best shelter involves lying or sitting on ice, snow or frozen ground.

How our wildlife will fare this winter is not yet known, but it is known that our winter thus far has been far more difficult than those we might normally experience. For wildlife it can’t be good. It is reasonable to assume that reserves of fat built up by wildlife during the late fall as a defense against the winter cold are being used up more rapidly and earlier in the winter season than usual. That may mean the difference between life and death as winter progresses.

While it may be a little too early in the winter to assess the impact of the recent cold temperatures and blustery winds on the state’s wildlife, it is apparent that a break in the weather is needed to prevent, or at least delay, any additional stress on wildlife.

On the positive side, many of our wildlife species prove to be remarkably resilient. Let’s hope this winter doesn’t continue to test that attribute.