Winter wildlife viewing opportunities

PHOTO BY GARRY BRANDENBURG Winter wildlife viewing never goes out of style. Almost anyone who travels locally can see wild critters going about their business of survival during winter time. Today’s image of wild turkeys was made just prior to the first snow event. However, even now, with snow on the ground, any critter, whether pheasants, turkeys, deer, crows, eagles, raccoons or opossums are easier to spot. So take the time to use binoculars for a close up look at wildlife. Back roads for wildlife viewing tend to work best. Go exploring and enjoy.

WINTER WILDLIFE comes in all sizes and shapes. Of course there are the backyard bird feeder visitors for resident feathered species. On a larger scale are wild turkeys whose big dark bodies stand out prominently against a background of snow covered fields. Look for them along field edges. And since wild turkeys have strong legs and feet to stir up snow cover to gain access to crop residue under the snow, turkeys are providing a bit easier access for pheasants who are also hungry.

At various times this scribe has been amazed at the number of pheasants visible in open fields. It is not the ideal situation for pheasants who must eat and in doing so might have to be far away from escape cover and therefore become more exposed to potential aerial predators like eagles or ground predators like coyotes. Of course pheasants can fly away at any of the first signs of danger. However, winter survival to a large extent depends upon how best to conserve energy. Flying takes energy which is the burning of fat reserves the birds have hopefully gained from last summer and fall.

A COMMON GRACKLE: I have no explanation for a recent bird sighting….a common grackle….at my backyard bird feeder. There is just one grackle finding a way to pluck sunflower seeds while surrounded by bluejays, cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers, hairy and downy woodpeckers, juncos and sparrows. For whatever reason it decided to show up for its free meals, more power to it. It is still a long time before spring arrives.

HIBERNATION is a good scheme for winter survival used by mammals such as ground squirrels, pocket gophers and of course the well known woodchuck or groundhog. Today is Groundhog Day as far as humans are concerned who need, want or just have fun with the idea of a groundhog awakening from its deep sleep to look outside. If it sees its shadow, according to legend, there will be six more weeks of winter. If the animal does not see its shadow, well, we can safely assume winter is only a month and one-half away. “Crazy people” is probably what a groundhog may think of the human antics above ground.

Humans should instead be watching the position of the sun with respect to its height above the horizon at mid day and the sun’s position at daybreak and sunset times. Day length is getting longer steadily and predictably just like it always does as the earth’s orbit keeps on track during its annual journey around the sun.

From the perspective of the woodchuck, safely and warm in its underground below frost line burrow, it does not want to be bothered by people wearing big felt top hats, having live bands playing music and having a host of television cameras pointed in its direction just for the amusement of mankind. If I was a woodchuck, I’d bite my handler on his or her fingers to drive home the point that disturbing my sleep comes at a price. Now go to a first aid station to get your cut finger wounds stitched, a shot of antibiotics and remember to not mess with me again. Just pay your doctor bill and be quiet.

Hibernation starts earlier and lasts longer the further north a woodchuck lives. Once in its grass lined winter burrow, its body temperature may fall to about 35 degrees F. Its heart rate will lower to just 4 to 10 beats per minute. Breathing slows to once every six minutes. In this torpor state, they make due and use up stored body fat to survive. Come spring the animal may be only one-half as heavy as it was last fall.

The groundhog, or woodchuck has a scientific name (Marmota monax). It is a member of the rodent family Sciuridae and specifically the larger ground squirrel segment called marmots. Adults are 16 to 20 inches long including a six inch tail. Weights can range from 5 to 15 pounds. The incisor teeth grow about 1/16th of an inch per week during its active time of April to November. Constant wearing of the bottom teeth against the top incisors is required to keep the teeth ‘trimmed’ to usable size.

The animal is a powerful digger using its forearms to loosen soil and move it backwards and outside a den area. Tunnel complexes can be extensive, up to 24 feet long with side galleries. One researcher measured the excavated soil from one groundhog den and found it contained about six cubic feet of material weighing over 650 pounds. Trying to put all that soil back in place, if you are unfortunate to have a woodchuck decide to burrow under a garage slab floor, is next to impossible. The fact that groundhogs sometimes invade backyard spaces and disrupt your living spaces does not endure them with favorable feeling from humans. A pest is a pest for which woodchucks can easily gain that title.

Vegetation of grasses, berries and some agricultural crops, when available, will work as something to eat. Dandelions are on the menu along with timothy grass, buttercup, red and black raspberries, buckwheat, plantain, wild lettuce, clover and alfalfa. However, this species will also take grubs, grasshoppers, insects, snails and maybe even a mouse. So it is not a strict vegetarian.

Celebrate Feb. 2 anyway you desire. Just remember to let the woodchuck sleep as Mother Nature intended it to do.

HUNTING SEASONS meetings with Iowa Department of Natural Resources biologists and managers will be held across the state from mid February into early March. For us in central Iowa, the meeting will be held at Tama County’s Otter Creek Lake Park will be from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on March 5. These town-hall style meetings will provide time for a review of the past seasons, what may need to be done to improve them and to educate the public about a long series of inputs the DNR uses to track population trends. Potential changes to hunting seasons for 2020-21 will be listened to. Sportsmen and women are encouraged to attend.

IZAAK WALTON LEAGUE MEMBERS are encouraged to attend the annual Wild Game Feed at 6 p.m. on Feb 12 at the Conservation Center at the Grimes Farm. Specialty dishes of various fish, game meats of many kinds and of course desserts of choice will allow no one to go home hungry. The program after the meal will be presented by Mike Stegmann, Marshall County Conservation Bureau Director about anything wildlife and conservation activity related for the new 2020 year. Mark the date on your calendar and bring an appetite.


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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