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First Snow Turkeys

December 15, 2012
By GARRY BRANDENBURG , Times-Republican

Will the weather produce snow this winter? Answer: Yes. Have you ever not seen an Iowa winter without snow? Answer: No. The only question is ... when will storm systems with adequate moisture set its sights on Iowa. Some winters have less snow, some have more. Only after mid April of 2013 will we look back with 20/20 vision and read the records of what the past winter was like in comparison to previous winters. Predicting now what this winter will be is iffy, even for meteorologists.

What human observations of wildlife will tell us is this. Winter is a hard time to endure. Hopefully good foods during last summer and fall have allowed the critters with fur and/or feathers to accumulate food stocks to eat, or extra fat layers on their bodies to live off of until spring does break and new plant growth resumes. However, the reality of another winter is here. It is staring them in the face, like it or not. It is a fact that must be faced in the survival strategies of all furry or feathered critters.

Mother Nature has assisted wild things in this regard. Birds that overwinter as year round residents have a good coat of downy under feathers and a top coat of moisture shedding material. All these can be fluffed up to trap warm air during really cold days and nights, or retracted as needed to adjust and maintain proper body temperatures. Mammals that are hibernating below frost lines in burrows deep in the ground are protected from wide swings of surface temperature variations. True hibernation means slow breathing and drastically slowed body functions. For mammals that are active all year long above ground, a winter coat is thick with soft fur close to its skin and hollow longer guard hairs to act like a blanket on top of that. In addition, blood flow in the skinny legs of deer for instance, or even in the legs of all birds, especially waterfowl, has veins with cold blood passing very close by the arteries with warm blood. This is a counter-current heat exchange circulation system. For birds with no feathers on their scaly legs, this cold blood/warm blood bypass system works. The result is a lessening of heat loss in birds legs and toes. The heat loss is also just right so a goose or duck standing on ice will not have enough heat in its foot to melt the ice. That prevents the birds from freezing to the ice surface.

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Wild Turkeys become easier to see when the background land cover is white with snow. Such was the case last week when our first dusting of the white stuff hinted at winter weather. Winter in Iowa means cold temperatures, and any moisture from the clouds is more likely to fall through air below 32 degrees F. Instead of rain, we will see snow. Wildlife adapt to and are well prepared to endure a typical midwest winter. Since the axis of our little Earth in a very big universe is now tilted away from the sun, we get less direct insolation from the sun in the northern hemisphere during the season we call winter. On the southern hemisphere of Earth,  it is summer. Just think about winter this way. After Dec. 21, day length will begin its slow advance toward Spring. Wildlife adapts. People like to complain.

Wild turkeys will be active all winter long, moving through forested areas and adjacent farm fields. With their scaly legs and toes, they will scratch through snow and leaf litter looking for morsels of food and insects. Every year they seem to find enough to get the job done. Good for them. Nature has provided these birds with many abilities and adaptations that allow them to survive. While the bird's legs have no feathers, the body does. In fact a wild turkey has approximately 3,500 feathers on its body to wrap its muscles and flesh in a blanket of warmth. It is an awesome system worthy of our appreciation. This winter if you should be in the right place at the right time to see wild turkeys in a snow covered field, you will know they are just doing what they are designed to do, survive.


BEAVER are surviving also, inside their bank dens. They have laid up stores of tree bark and branches in underwater 'refrigerators' that they have access to all winter long. Beaver have built numerous dams consisting of small twigs, branches and mud across the flow channels of Timber Creek, Linn Creek and Minerva Creek. With sufficient water depth above each dam, this large rodent can swim to gets its food and then take it into an above water living chamber to eat. On a recent flight this scribe made along Minerva Creek, I counted at least one dozen beaver dams. Each dam is holding a good amount of water behind it, a testament to the engineering marvels of this native mammal. The beaver knows how to survive its winter season. It adapts. It does not complain.


DEER reports of animals taken this year show a present total of about 85,000. Today and tomorrow are the last days of shotgun season number two. The total number of deer yet to be taken will likely slow a trend line slightly less than last year. In fact, Tom Litchfield, deer biologist with the Iowa DNR seems to peg the count at about 5,000 less deer taken this year at this time in comparison to 2011-12's deer kill. It is also known that more Iowa counties will be added to the list of having obtained objective status for the deer herd. Stay tuned for more information on what the final tally will indicate.

Just like in all past years, a few deer hunters were in the right place at the right time to put a big antlered buck on the ground and tag it. For those folks, the Iowa Deer Classic to be held in DSM next March will be a time to proudly display a wonderful trophy.

Iowa has a reputation for some very nice white tail deer. We just do not have a big buck behind every bush or tree as might be implied by television hunting shows. Keep that thought in mind when trying to relate the TV hunt in comparison to the average hunt scenario in the real world.

Dec. 17 is the opening of Iowa's late muzzle loader deer season. That runs through Jan. 10. And the second part of the archery season re-opens also on the 17. Muzzle loaders will number about 30,000 people across the state. In 2011-12, late muzzle loader hunters took 8,950 deer. Of that total, 55 percent were doe deer, and thus the remaining 45 percent were bucks. For late season deer hunting, finding feeding areas and dodging weather systems is the key. An untilled corn field is one good source where deer will seek out any waste grain that missed the farmer's combine. If snows do not get too deep, hay crops of clover, winter wheat or rye will be attractive to deer. If past deer harvest numbers are similar, about 10 percent of the bow killed deer will be made during the late muzzle loader time frame.

On Dec. 15, today, any counties with unsold antlerless deer quotas will go on sale. Most of those counties will be in southern Iowa. A reminder to deer hunters is that their 2012 hunting license is valid through Jan. 10. For those wishing to hunt the late antlerless special season from Jan. 11 to the 20, a new valid 2013 hunting license and habitat fee will need to be purchased.


Iowa OTTER and BOBCAT quotas have been met. Those seasons are now officially closed. Should a trapper catch one inadvertently, it must be reported immediately to a conservation officer. Do that to stay out of trouble with a court citation. The bobcat quota of 450 animals was reached at the end of November. Trapping was legal in select southern or western counties. Otter season closed Nov. 24 when its quota of 850 was obtained.


This scribe participated in the local Christmas Bird Count this week. My 55 mile route did not turn up anything unusual. Nine bald eagles were on the list along with red-tailed hawks, kestrels, crows, wild turkeys, and bunch of common birds at the feeder at home. I'll have a more complete tally list from other observers to share with you in the near future. Sand Lake is presently holding about 3,000 Canada geese and a smattering of other duck species. Geese will hang around all winter if they do not have too much snow to work through. Once feeding becomes too difficult due to deep snow, the geese will move south to the open areas just beyond the snow line.


As readers of this column already know, natural history subjects of just about any kind will draw my interest. Today's story is number 1,107 since I began this series in October 1993. I like the natural world and strive to understand as much as I can about what makes it all work together. Wildlife is just one aspect of many natural history subjects. Birds in particular are just one of the most deserving of all vertebrates. Roger Tory Peterson, author of many birding stories and guide books, calls birds "perhaps the best entre'e into the study of natural history, and a very good wedge into conservation awareness."

My upbringing on a Bremer County dairy farm was not centered on bird watching for any particular conservation value, unless it was at the end of a .22 rifle or a 20 gauge shotgun. I had an intense dislike for chickens and a few roosters that persisted on chasing me while I rode my bicycle too close. Chasing pheasants was a lot more fun for me and my mongrel dog Sport. What I didn't know then was how life on that small farm would shape my skills of observation about the natural world. Fast forward at least six decades and I'm still inquisitive about the universe, our own sun and its planetary system, Earth's natural history over geologic time, and the interplay of events in the ecosystem humans share with all other living things. If I'm interested in the subject, I'll try to make it informative and factual for you to learn and enjoy.


Garry Brandenburg is a graduate of Iowa State University with BS degree in Fish & Wildlife Biology. He is the retired director of the Marshall County Conservation Board. Contact him at PO Box 96, Albion, IA 50005.



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