Fly amanita, poisonous to humans, but a useful winter food to red squirrels.

‘Baby, it’s cold outside’



So starts a popular song of my youth. For both man and beast, it is a time for trying to keep warm and safe from the cold temperatures and possible snow. For wildlife, it is an ever-present hunt for food to sustain life when food is scarce.

As winter moves along, we keep adding more layers of clothing or we put on special garments in order to keep warm. Birds that stay here all winter do much the same thing. Their plumage is duller, less conspicuous, denser and more closely interlocked. Ducks have downy undergrowth preventing winter water and cold weather from getting in. Underwear for furry wildlife takes the form of very short hairs that sprout along the roots of the longer true fur.

All insects are cold-blooded, which means that their temperature is generally that of their surroundings, so cold weather does slow them down. I was surprised after a snowfall one day to find a fly walking on the snow. Very cold wintry weather makes insects adapt in their own special way to survive, Insects for the most part do not migrate north or south as some birds do, but they do migrate up and down. They go from living above ground to living beneath a fallen log, down in a rocky crevice or down deep in a leaf pile. Water insects go into deep water or into the muddy bottoms of a pond. Still other insects survive the winter as eggs in a neat sac made by the parents. Only hardy souls now brave the cold and uncertain covering on ice-covered ponds and roads to enjoy nature, but there is still much to be seen even on the coldest day from the comfort of your own car.

Red squirrels are very active in the snow. These little mammals, about half the size of a grey squirrel, are active from dawn to dusk and throughout the whole year except in very stormy weather. Red squirrels defend their winter caches ferociously against other squirrels and against birds, for the red squirrel’s life depends on what they have laid away for the lean months. The squirrel’s cache is buried in large underground locations that may contain a bushel or more of food, including nuts, acorns and seeds from coniferous trees. Mushrooms are stored under loose bark or in the crotch of a tree. These squirrels can even eat the poisonous fly amanita, for their body is apparently able to detoxify or alter the mushroom’s poisonous ingredient.

Deer mice are undaunted by the cold and feed on grass shoots or gnaw the bark from young trees. If these mice come into your house, they eat cereals, cookies, crackers, dog biscuits, etc. This little mammal is a bit like a Walt Disney character in appearance. They are active all year, mostly at night, and have well-developed senses of hearing, smelling, taste and sight.

When living outdoors, they do not dig a burrow but make small excavations under rocks, logs and stumps. When the ground is covered with snow, they go about safely and unseen in their trails under the snow. Deer mice are strong swimmers if they have to swim, but they do not take to water readily. Since they are prolific breeders, they provide other wildlife with plenty of food for the catching. In your house, they can be a nuisance and unwelcome guests. Snap trapping is the best solution inside. A small “have-a heart” live trap is possible as well. Be sure to drive the trapped mouse a long ways from your home so it doesn’t come right back in again. Poison is never an option. Too many other creatures die as well after eating a poisoned mouse.

Snowy owls are being seen on Cadillac. Michael Good, well-known local ornithologist, sent me some outstanding photos of these magnificent birds flying low over the sparse vegetation on top of the mountain. Snowy owls are mostly white and very large. There is no mistaking them for any other owls. This awesome-looking owl has a round head, no ear tufts and appears to have no neck. Some of these owls appear whiter than others, for the young birds and females tend to have more dark flecking on the feathers. This owl is a daytime flier. When you see one, it reminds you of a huge white moth flying by. It is very exciting to see one gliding silently over a remote beach, salt marsh or mountain slope.

These lovely owls come to Mount Desert Island in the winter as they spread out of their normal areas to the north in search of food. Large migrations such as the last two years have produced are cyclical and seem to depend on the availability of prey. One year recently, these owls were seen as far south as Florida. One of their nests in the far north that I saw was even lined with dead lemmings, they had so much food. We’ll have to see what this year brings. Any time you are in an open area on or off island, whether mountain top or beach or near the airport, you should be watching for them. They are very beautiful to see, and not particularly wary birds. If you find one perched somewhere, it probably will let you get a good look at it.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Columnist
Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

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